I was heartbroken to wake up yesterday morning and learn that for the first time in its 59-year history, Peace Corps would totally suspend its operations and evacuate thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak.
My first thought, as both a former Washington headquarters staff and as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) myself, was how absolutely difficult this decision must have been for the agency’s leadership. I do not question the decision, but today my heart is heavy – for staff who have an enormous administrative and logistical lift during an already trying time; for the budgetary impact to the taxpayer; for the host country staff who may be worried about their jobs in the long-term even though Peace Corps’ overseas offices are staying open; for the continuity of programming and the optics to our global partners large and small; and most of all, my heart goes out to the PCVs.
PCVs may feel they are being ripped from their tender, fragile lives overseas and the work and connections that they have sacrificed and struggled to build. Nothing drives home the transience of a life overseas like a sudden evacuation. Even though PCVs know that their service is only supposed to last 27 months, nothing prepares you to leave so fast. In some cases, they are even leaving behind their beloved pets and returning to a country in crisis with neither job or family to welcome them. Even when it’s for the best, let me tell you, it hurts, and it’s a loss.
I want to share the letter that Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen, who I have met several times and respect very much, wrote to PCVs last weekend to announce her decision.
March 15, 2020
WASHINGTON – The following is an open letter to Peace Corps Volunteers from Director Jody Olsen.
I know this is a very stressful time for you and your families, your host communities and the staff at your post.
As you know, we recently evacuated Volunteers from China and Mongolia due to the COVID-19 outbreak and related travel constraints and school closings. Further evacuations are now under way at several posts. Unfortunately, it has become clear in the last 48 hours that numerous posts must follow suit.
It is against this backdrop that I have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend all Peace Corps operations globally and evacuate all of our Volunteers. As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries.
Evacuations are difficult, emotionally draining experiences for everyone involved. We are here for you, and we will do all that we can to keep you informed and up to date on the latest developments. Ensuring your health, safety and security is the highest priority of the Peace Corps. I want to stress that Headquarters remains open under its own Continuity of Operations Plan, and agency personnel are working 24/7 to support you and our staff overseas.
I also want to assure you and our host country partners that these evacuations represent the temporary suspension of Volunteer activities. We are not closing posts, and we will be ready to return to normal operations when conditions permit. Importantly, our host country staff will remain in their current positions. They play a critical role in every element of the Peace Corps mission, especially in a time of crisis.
Look for more information from your Country Director in the hours ahead. I deeply appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through these logistically challenging operations.
My thoughts are with you, and I am incredibly grateful for your service.
Jody K. Olsen
Part of the reason that this resonates so deeply with me is because of the way my own Peace Corps service ended in 2004.
Three months before my Close of Service (COS), I was medically evacuated for a serious illness that had become life-threatening. During my evacuation, it became clear that the situation would not resolve within the 45-day authorized window and subsequently, I had to COS and return to my Home of Record.
Unwell, unemployed, and facing a long and difficult path back to health before I could continue with my plans for graduate school abroad, I felt all the feelings. Despair. Sadness at the end of a romantic relationship where I didn’t even really get to say goodbye. Frustration that I had left almost all my worldly belongings behind in my apartment. Worry about my community and the projects we had been working on together. Financial stress. Anger. Oh, the anger.
I was lucky because I had somewhere to go. At the age of 25, I moved back in temporarily with my mom who provided me with a room, a car to share, and unending support and love. I also had the support of the rest of my Peace Corps cohort, and without their perspectives and uncanny ability to relate to exactly what I was going through, a difficult time could have spiraled into real depression.
Not everyone facing the end of their service right now is so lucky. I have seen repeated social media posts from PCVs whose families are ill or vulnerable and unable to welcome them home. They are looking for help, and for information. They are worried about getting sick, or making others sick.
I have also seen an outpouring of love and support from the RPCV community – people are opening their homes, they are offering to fetch pets from airports and care for them, they are offering leads on jobs.
And I am doing my part – as a former three-time mentor with the RPCV Mentoring Program, I have signed up to speak with any RPCVs struggling with their transition home. Now, in a week, in a month, or in a year. At any time, indefinitely. I am prepared to pay forward the love and support I have received to anyone who needs it in this Peace Corps family. Your work and contributions matter!
If you are reading this and you need someone to talk to, please reach out to me, or to someone you trust. You are not alone. In solidarity, and in the knowledge that someday you will have to opportunity to serve again should you so choose. Please believe me when I say it’s not over, even when it feels like everything has ended.
About the Peace Corps: The Peace Corps sends Americans with a passion for service abroad on behalf of the United States to work with communities and create lasting change. Volunteers develop sustainable solutions to address challenges in education, health, community economic development, agriculture, the environment and youth development. Through their Peace Corps experience, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a life-long commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today’s global economy. Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 235,000 Americans of all ages have served in 141 countries worldwide.