The U.S. Peace Corps’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, evacuating all 7,300 volunteers who were working in 61 countries, has left many of them uncertain about their future, with supporters of the humanitarian organization concerned it may not survive a prolonged shutdown.
“I'm not going to lie. It kind of sucks,” said Alisia Moreno, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural village in East Timor before being ordered to evacuate on March 15. She is now back at her parents’ house in Colorado and ending a 14-day self-quarantine period.
Established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy with a mission to promote cross-cultural understanding and provide assistance where needed, the Peace Corps has never before suspended worldwide operations. It has in the past suspended some country-specific or regional programs due to natural disasters, the eruption of violence or civil strife, and other safety concerns. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Peace Corps pulled its volunteers from West Africa but resumed regional operations in 2016.
Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen said in a statement the unprecedented decision to suspend programming worldwide and withdraw all volunteers in March was made to avoid, “a situation where volunteers would have been stranded overseas as borders and air space were shutting down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” The growing coronavirus outbreak has infected more than 800,000 people worldwide, and left more than 39,000 others dead, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.
For many Peace Corps volunteers, the evacuation process was chaotic and upending. Some volunteers were given 24 hours’ notice to leave their sites in rural communities with the expectation they would soon return.
“When it did happen it was like, wait, what? We assumed that we were going to the capital to try and be all together so that we weren't burdens on our community. And they were just like, ‘OK, we're sending you on the next plane,’” said Moreno, who traveled about three hours by local taxi from her village in the eastern part of East Timor to the Peace Corps office in the capital, Dili.
Flight cancelations and airport closures also caused delays and frustration for volunteers and staff, who worked around the clock to coordinate the evacuations.
Most volunteers were recent college graduates. They took on a two-year commitment to live in rural communities in developing nations, learn the local language, and work as teachers or partner with organizations assisting small farmers and local businesses.
Many are supportive of the Peace Corps’ decision to evacuate the volunteers due to health and safety concerns but are upset they were forced to abandon the friendships and projects they developed.
“It's bittersweet. And at first it was more bitter than it was sweet,” said Danielle Collier, who worked as an education volunteer in North Macedonia before she was evacuated to her family’s home in Utah.
“I don't personally feel like I completed my service because it was such an abrupt goodbye,” said Moreno, who was halfway through her tour.
In her recent statement, director Olsen emphasized the agency is not closing its offices around the world and plans “to return to normal activities as soon as conditions permit.”
Peace Corps advocates, however, are concerned that a prolonged shutdown could make the agency vulnerable to opponents who want to cut foreign aid programs.
“The more, I think, it is an agency that has no volunteers in the field, the harder it gets for them to sustain those programs and for posts to keep them open,” said Glenn Blumhorst, president of the National Peace Corps Association, or NPCA, a political advocacy group of former volunteers.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s past proposals to significantly reduce foreign assistance, including deep cuts to the Peace Corps budget, have been overturned by bipartisan congressional opposition. The NPCA is calling for increased Peace Corps funding to help evacuated volunteers and restart worldwide operations once the pandemic ends.
Out of work
Given the uncertainty as to how long the coronavirus threat will last, the Peace Corps terminated the service of all its volunteers, putting them out of work, rather than suspending service.
“There wasn't really a good way to do it. I wish there was a better way to do it,” Blumhorst said.
The volunteers will receive an evacuation allowance in addition to normally allocated readjustment funds and full health coverage for the next two months. Director Olsen said volunteers seeking to return to the corps “will be given expedited consideration over the next year.”
Collier, who was in North Macedonia for three months, said she plans to go back.
“I definitely don't feel like it is over,” she said.
The other volunteers now enter the American workforce with few prospects at a time when most businesses and industries are closed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.