Despite monumental coverage of the pandemic, we have seen very few reports of the decision to bring home the more than 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers from 61 nations.
Ironically, the announcement went out to volunteers March 15, just the day before this column last month that focused on the memorial celebration of an outstanding 1960s volunteer.
We didn’t learn until eight days later, from another of our group who served in that same project in Chile. In the word of a news report he sent in an email, the current volunteers were “fired.”
It took careful reading of the notification volunteers received, which was published on the Peace Corps website. All evacuees “regardless of length of service” would be classified as COS, the agency announced. In bureaucratic speak, the acronym signifies “Completion of Service.”
Thus more than 7,300 volunteers, whether having just completed training or nearing the end of the two years of service, were to join the swelling ranks of the unemployed.
And that only after a required 14-day self-quarantine.
Our initial response was disbelief that the agency would invest in selection, training, inoculations, medical, transportation and all the other expenses to send and support volunteers and then terminate them.
In retrospect, particularly with the mounting spread of the virus, numbers of infections, and ongoing uncertainty about corralling it, the decision seems to make more sense.
Would it have been any better to leave them completely in limbo? On indefinite hold?
Hard to say, with the current job market, or rather lack of it.
They will be able to apply again, whenever the program resumes.
The Peace Corps is giving an evacuation allowance based on the length of the service and time remaining in the project and providing health care coverage for two months with the option of purchasing an additional month, the agency announced.
They will be given “expedited consideration” for a return to service, an online message from Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen states.
“To be clear, the Peace Corps is not closing posts, and Volunteers [sic] will be able to return to normal activities as soon as conditions permit.”
And the evacuation was successful, she later reported.
“Fortunately, we were able to safely evacuate each of our posts, avoiding a situation where Volunteers would have been stranded overseas as borders and air space were shutting down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Those returned volunteers qualify for non-competitive eligibility that makes it easier to join the federal workforce and qualify for Coverdell Fellowships available to graduate students. Not particularly uplifting in this crippled economy.
National Public Radio reported that the returnee are ineligible for unemployment benefits because of their volunteer status. There are congressional proposals to change that but none have been approved it appears.
Former volunteers have banded together — online of course — with financial assistance for the evacuees caught in a bind for supplies, transportation, housing or cash.
Early this month a bipartisan trio of senators and more recently two other senators, both Democrats, have proposed legislation to assist the evacuated Peace Corps volunteers. The bills would insure their qualifications for unemployment insurance, expand health insurance coverage and create a path to enrollment in AmeriCorps or similar service programs.
Since its establishment in 1961, Peace Corps has never evacuated its entire roster of volunteers.
Volunteers, who typically spend two to three years living and working in poorer countries (Chile, where we served from 1961 to 1963 was dropped from the program after its economy improved) are generally idealistic youth, although the roster includes middle age to retirees).
They have values and skills that could help the nation reopen, Sen. John Garamendi, D-Calif., told The Hill, a Washington, D.C., news website.
“In order for the country to reopen, we’re going to need to have a public health program of testing and follow-up,” said Garamendi, chairman of the Congressional Peace Corps Caucus. “The Peace Corps volunteers that came back are a perfect fit for that.”
Our long-ago Peace Corps experience left us with an expanded world view and lifetime friends; we can only hope that for all volunteers, even those now corralled by this darn pandemic.