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Put Peace Corps volunteers to work on U.S. soil to fight COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Peace Corps volunteers at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, 2018.
Peace Corps volunteers at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, 2018.(U.S. State Department/U.S. State Department)

Because of coronavirus, the Peace Corps called more than 7,300 volunteers home from 60 countries and left them stranded in our collapsed economy with no jobs, no unemployment benefits and, after a couple of months, no health insurance.

While the evacuation of the volunteers made sense, their dismissal from the Peace Corps looks spectacularly dumb at a time when the country needs all hands on deck.

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And, to a larger point that needs to be made in these frightening times, it’s another reflection of the devaluation of government and public service that has taken place over the last 40 years, culminating in the presidency of a man who brings chaos to the White House and bad-mouths federal agencies. If the current crisis reveals anything, it’s the fallacy that a government diminished by its leadership can, along with the private sector, sufficiently protect and serve the American public.

Regarding the Peace Corps: What we have here is failure of imagination. The current cohort of volunteers — those who want to, at least — should be put to work helping the nation through the crisis.

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On Thursday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland joined other members of Congress in calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to summon them back to duty.

Van Hollen, a Democrat, was a lead signatory of a letter to Peace Corps director Jody Olsen (formerly of the University of Maryland School of Social Work) and FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor. Both Democrats and Republicans signed the letter.

“Since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961, its volunteers have helped curtail the HIV/AIDS and malaria epidemics in Africa, build education systems for remote communities, and improve food security for underserved, vulnerable populations around the world,” the letter said. “The expertise and dynamism of this trained corps are now desperately needed on the home front.”

The letter said Peace Corps volunteers could help hospitals in their procurement of supplies. They could staff call centers. At public schools that need to set up distance learning, they could help teachers and offer tech support. They could help with food distribution to low-income families. They could serve as social workers and visit people who live alone and feel isolated.

Van Hollen and his colleagues proposed putting the Peace Corps volunteers to work through FEMA Corps, another public service program that deploys young Americans to communities hit with disaster. Given that they’ve already been vetted, Peace Corps volunteers could be fast-tracked into state and local efforts in the pandemic response.

Otherwise, Van Hollen argues, the Department of Labor should make them eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits from the $2.2 trillion disaster relief package authorized by Congress. And the government should help them keep or acquire health insurance, too.

Some Americans might be surprised to hear we still have the Peace Corps. After all, at his inauguration, the current president promised a retreat from international generosity. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first,” Donald Trump said.

Contrast that with the president who established the Peace Corps, John F. Kennedy, the man who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The idea was to foster good will by sending Americans to places where they could help improve the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet.

We have never celebrated the Peace Corps enough. What we celebrate is military might. When it comes to the national government, what gets the most love (and more than $700 billion a year now) is the Department of Defense. We don’t celebrate the thousands of other government agencies staffed by men and women whose work has made so many things possible in American life — highways, higher education, law enforcement, medical research, clean air and water, safety in the workplace, safety in the skies, and, until now, safety from pandemic.

“The United States is blessed with thousands of dedicated public servants, people who go to work every day and do their level best to do right by the American people,” says Chris Myers Asch, a history teacher at Colby College in Maine and former Teach for America volunteer who once lobbied Congress for the establishment of a U.S. Public Service Academy. “We don’t honor them with parades or holidays, and we don’t appreciate how their work and expertise keep our institutions running. Instead, they’re scorned as bureaucrats and belittled by shallow, self-centered politicos who assume that the whole world is as partisan and unprincipled as they are.”

Ronald Reagan started beating on government programs and cutting the taxes needed to pay for them 40 years ago. Trump brought contempt and chaos to Washington. He ignores experts and smears federal agencies as “the deep state.” You never hear him celebrate public service or non-military intervention for the good. Democrats have done it — Bill Clinton’s administration pushed AmeriCorps; Barack Obama dispatched thousands of federal personnel, military and civilian, to West Africa to help stop the spread of Ebola.

“Americans love to complain about big government, but we need strong public institutions to work, particularly in times of crisis,” said Asch. “We depend on capable, committed public servants who work for our country, not any political party. For several decades, we have belittled our public servants and eroded our public institutions, and we now are seeing the devastating effects. … Nothing could be more dangerous in a crisis.

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