What Peace Corps can do to fight Ebola

By Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Oct. 29, 2014

Like so many in the Peace Corps family and around the world, I’m heartbroken by the stories of suffering caused by the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. As a public health professional who has spent a lot of time in that region of the world, I’ve laid awake at night, thinking of how the Peace Corps can help to combat this deadly disease, given our unique model and approach.

The decision to temporarily suspend our Peace Corps Volunteer programs in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and bring Volunteers home to the U.S. was a difficult one. Our commitment to Volunteer health and safety is unwavering, and always our first priority. At the same time, Peace Corps Volunteers and staff are passionately committed to their host countries and communities, and want to do whatever they can to help in this time of true need.

Peace Corps ingenuity and the power of modern technology have allowed us to find the best of both worlds, and truly make a difference in the fight against Ebola even with all Volunteers safely at home.

One way the Peace Corps is contributing is by supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the ground in the three countries most affected. Peace Corps staff in these countries were given the option to volunteer to support CDC’s work by assisting with transportation, language translation, and by lending their cultural expertise and community know-how — and more than 80 staff members raised their hands to help— including nearly all of our Liberian staff.

I was deeply touched to receive an email from Greg Thorne, CDC’s deputy team lead in Liberia, that read in part, “The Peace Corps has been instrumental in what we have collectively accomplished. Wherever we have deployed together, the Peace Corps has amplified CDC’s efforts and accelerated our progress. On a fundamental level, this includes outstanding operational support: taming unruly roads, deftly resolving logistical challenges, and aiding navigation of unfamiliar cultural contexts. More programmatically, Peace Corps team members have ably expanded outreach through their proactive pursuit of enhanced community awareness. Beyond such vital community connection, Peace Corps team members also offer a crucial source of continuity amid CDC’s comparatively brief tours in-country, allowing us to sustain relationships, carry forward knowledge, and, ultimately, maintain the momentum needed to control this epidemic.”

Our engagement with CDC allows the Peace Corps to participate in a way that takes advantage of our strong relationships at the community level and our grassroots approach to development. Yet we’re not stopping there.

Returned Volunteers from West Africa and beyond have pitched in by participating in “Mappy Hours” to help improve street maps of Liberia’s capital. The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders asked OpenStreetMap to work on mapping Monrovia to help with contact tracing efforts, so the Peace Corps Office of Innovation helped organize data-entry community events, including three virtual and one at our D.C. headquarters, where participants traced satellite imagery to produce detailed, usable maps, contributing to the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team efforts, which have reportedly added 9 million place names, roads, and buildings to maps of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone since March 2014.

Recently returned Volunteers have also been utilizing technology to stay engaged with their host communities from a distance and, in many cases, are even continuing to advance the projects they launched while in service. For example, Peace Corps Response Volunteer David Summers has remotely checked water flow in his Guinean community of Dubreka, with help from Guinea Training Manager Ousmane Diallo. David has also been calling his counterpart to review progress on the water initiative and has big ideas for new projects in partnership with European nongovernmental organizations. Another Guinea RPCV, Sara Laskowski, partnered with the National Peace Corps Association to launch an Ebola relief fund to support small grants for grassroots NGOs doing Ebola support work in the affected countries.

Ebola has engendered so much helplessness and hopelessness, and yet Peace Corps staff and Volunteers have found a way to make a meaningful difference in their countries and communities of service, even from a distance. In the face of such tragedy, it means everything to the Peace Corps to be even a small part of the solution.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet