In Historic First, Peace Corps to Evacuate Volunteers Worldwide Amid Pandemic

The U.S. agency announced it was suspending operations globally and recalling volunteers for their safety as the outbreak spread.

A tourist walks in the airport in Kyiv, Ukraine amid coronavirus fears.
A traveler walks in the arrival hall of the International Boryspil airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, after his plane landed from China on Jan. 30. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

The Peace Corps is for the first time in its history halting its operations globally and evacuating all of its volunteers, a drastic step for the small U.S. agency that shows the knock-on effects of the global coronavirus pandemic even in developing countries still untouched by the outbreak. 

“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,” Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen wrote in a letter to volunteers. 

It joins a raft of other government agencies grappling with how to respond to the rapidly spreading new virus that has roiled markets, upended global trade, and derailed international diplomacy

Peace Corps volunteers have already been evacuated in China and Mongolia, but “it has become clear in the last 48 hours that numerous posts must follow suit,” Olsen said in the letter. “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.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

The Peace Corps, a government-run volunteer program established in 1961, has about 7,000 volunteers serving in over 60 countries. They will be evacuated to head off a scenario in which volunteers are trapped in their host countries due to international travel restrictions. “We are not closing posts, and we will be ready to return to normal operations when conditions permit,” Olsen stressed. She added that host country staff will remain in their current positions, and the Washington-based headquarters will remain open under its continuity of operations plan.

The Peace Corps hasn’t specified when it would resume operations. “The safety of our volunteers is our highest priority. We will temporarily suspend our operations as long as it takes to keep them safe,” Marjorie Wass, a Peace Corps press officer, told Foreign Policy

The decision is set to disrupt projects that volunteers work on worldwide, including in some of the world’s least developed and poorest countries. Nearly half of all volunteers serve in Africa, where reported cases of coronavirus are rising—though still in limited numbers—across the continent stemming in part from travelers from Europe and Asia. As of March 10, 105 cases have been reported in 10 African countries, according to the latest data available from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Peace Corps’ decision comes as other U.S. federal agencies are scrambling to respond to the crisis. The State Department raised worldwide travel advisory to Level 3 on March 11, meaning it advises U.S. citizens to reconsider traveling abroad. The department also halted most travel for its employees abroad to stem the flow of the virus, which has infected over 160,000 people and killed over 6,000, mostly in China, where the virus appears to have originated. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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