As we debate reopening the country in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that one crucial ingredient will be a massive mobilization of people to make the process work. The public health, community outreach, and large-scale testing and contact tracing programs that experts agree we need will require huge numbers of boots on the ground. So will supporting seniors and the medically vulnerable, who will likely face a much lengthier quarantine.
Where will we find such an army of dedicated and well-trained people? The good news is part of it has already been trained and assembled. American taxpayers have already made the significant investment required to recruit, select, prepare, and medically screen a relief corps of thousands of volunteers to be deployed across the world on missions involving everything from public health and food banks to homeless shelters and medical logistics.
The bad news is last month the Trump administration fired all of them.
There were about 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers serving in over 60 developing countries when the organization’s global operations were suspended. A program that has extended a helping American hand to the world since President John F. Kennedy established it in 1961 was suddenly and unceremoniously withdrawn, at exactly the moment when American leadership, sacrifice, and assistance to the most vulnerable nations in the world would have been especially welcome.
But if there’s an upside, it’s this: The Trump administration now has a golden opportunity to remobilize the Peace Corps and harness its unique energy and willingness to serve, right here in the United States. The thousands of Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from across the globe represent America’s best and brightest, and they’re ready to serve this country right now.
These patriotic Americans answered President Kennedy’s clarion call of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” by volunteering to live and work for subsistence wages in some of the poorest regions in the world. All Peace Corps volunteers are accustomed to living in challenging, sometimes harsh and dangerous, environments. As a result, they are highly adaptable, resilient, and gritty. They embody America’s can-do attitude. They are not easily intimidated or daunted by real-world crises.
America could really use them right now, couldn’t we?
As a returned Peace Corps volunteer who went on to serve in the Obama administration, my disappointment and frustration with the way the program was halted are both personal and professional. To begin with, there’s a legitimate question as to the wisdom of issuing an evacuation order and returning all volunteers en masse from overseas posts to a country — the United States — that was woefully unprepared to ensure a safe, healthy, and orderly return. But it goes beyond that. This action represents a hasty and panicked retreat from those achingly impoverished countries that so desperately need our assistance in this particular moment. The spirit embodying the Peace Corps ethos demands that our volunteers be sent to and to remain in overseas communities during good times and bad. We have failed both the overseas communities and the volunteers serving them.
But now that the decision has been made, apparently with little serious thought about the long-term ramifications and damage to our global reputation, we must do what we can to convert this tragedy into hope for the welfare and the future of our communities here at home. The times demand imaginative approaches to mitigating the suffering and fear.
Rather than firing highly educated, well-trained, enthusiastic Americans and thrusting them into the growing ranks of the unemployed, we should offer them the opportunity to continue with their public service commitment. They should now be surged to assist with caring for the most vulnerable and those hardest hit here at home.
They can also complement the high-tech coronavirus tracking tools being built by Apple and Google with the old-fashioned, but highly effective testing and contact tracing methods that have worked in public health crises for generations. This will require the deployment of an army of thousands of trained contact tracers to interview everyone diagnosed with COVID-19 and to locate people they came into contact with during the period they may have been infectious. And that’s just the beginning of the challenge.
Of course, unlike AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers who committed themselves to address domestic challenges, this type of national surge is not what Peace Corps volunteers signed up for. Most Peace Corps volunteers are inspired to serve their country by a combination of wanting to serve the public interest and the opportunity to do so whilst living and working overseas, learning a foreign language, and experiencing a different culture. Not all returning volunteers would agree to continue their work in this country, but most would, especially given the rates of unemployment we expect to see in the coming months.
There are so many creative ways we could enlist this army of dedicated public servants to assist in alleviating the suffering that will leave our communities — urban and rural alike — struggling for months or years to come. I know they are up to the challenge.
Peter Vincent is a lawyer who specializes in national security, counterterrorism and international law. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and, later, with the Obama administration at the Department of Homeland Security.