Tag Archives: India

“To Whom It May Concern”: The Peace Corps, Public Health, and COVID-19

In his capacity as tour manager for the University of Ibadan’s Shakespeare Traveling Theatre troupe, Tom Hebert brought renowned productions—like Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet among others—to audiences throughout Nigeria. The pictures above illustrate a core tenet of Shakespearian performance: audience interaction, which was anything but lacking in West Africa during the 1960s. In a recent blog post, Hebert recalls that millions of Nigerian students were required to study Shakespeare as part of their secondary education; consequently, audiences numbering in the “thousands would mouth the lines in an audible susurrus” during shows. [1] Hebert also came to understand that British colonialism and an entrenched caste system overshadowed the educational merits of theater: “literate African kids wandering the streets with nothing to do, and nowhere to go.”

In 1964, after two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), the time had come for Hebert to return to the United States. Addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” a disease identity card (pictured below) marked Hebert’s return:

Disease Identity Card, April 1963, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

In another example, an unnamed PCV received a similar card upon their return from India in 1968:

Disease Identity Card, 1968, Shelf: 12.03.02, Inquire for Box & Folder Information, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

These cards were a reminder to PCVs as to the prevalence of disease in their country of service. They were also ostensibly a precautionary measure—designed to warn physicians that the returning PCV might well be a public health risk, in which case subsequent isolation, treatment, contact tracing, and the like would become necessary. [2] Thus, in addition to coping with “reentry, readjustment, and reverse culture shock,” returning PCVs further faced the (remote) reality that they themselves might inadvertently bring lethal pathogens—for which there was little protection against—home to friends and family. [3]

An example: there was no vaccine to combat Dengue Fever—one of several diseases that Tom Hebert was potentially exposed to in Nigeria—in the 1960s. To this day, a “safe, effective, and affordable vaccine” for Dengue Fever remains elusive. [4]

This is not to say that the Peace Corps only took steps to protect PCVs on the back-end of their service. Additional evidence from the Peace Corps Community Archive is revealing; even in the 1960s, the fledgling Peace Corps had a robust front-end health program. It featured preventive medicine (where possible) and pre-departure education designed to reduce disease transmission:

Vaccination Appointment & Record Card, Shelf: 12.03.02, Inquire for Box & Folder Information, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

PCV Medicine Book, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

In the case that preventive measures such as vaccination and sanitation failed, the Peace Corps also offered active PCVs reactionary treatment in the form of a standard medical kit:

Peace Corps Medical Kit with Health Guide, ID # 2011.0228.36, Transfer from the Peace Corps, National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1412958

Medical Kit Inventory, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

On balance, the health measures enacted by the Peace Corps—from pre-service medical training and vaccinations, reactionary treatment options during service, and disease identity cards upon return—were largely successful. From 1962-1983, 185 PCVs died during their service; of those 185, 40 died due to illness. For context: some 235,000 PCVs have served in hundreds of countries since the Peace Corps’ inception in 1961.

Relative to the Nigerians for whom he organized Shakespearean performances, Hebert enjoyed a position of privilege in terms of access to healthcare. For many PCVs, the prospect of becoming ill during service or bringing illness back to loved ones upon return was remote; indeed, the public health infrastructure of their home country, the United States, was robust compared to many countries where the Peace Corps operated.

However, what if the opposite were true? What if returning home was seemingly just as dangerous—if not more dangerous—to the well-being of PCVs? In March 2020, following the onset of COVID-19, this seeming impossibility came to fruition as all active PCVs were evacuated back to the United States. [5]

In a blog post for the Pacific Citizen, Kako Yamada—an evacuated PCV who had been serving in Comoros—recounts the abruptness of being evacuated due to COVID-19: [6]

Our plans for the remaining months or years of service vanished as we collected what we could of our belongings — some able to say their good-byes, others not so lucky.

I had been allotted one hour to pack and say my farewells to my host family — leaving my friends, students, teammates and co-workers in the dust.

Yamada did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation until she embarked on the long flight from Comoros—an island country off the coast of Africa—to her home in New York City:

On my layover in Addis Ababa, I saw people in full body suits; on the subsequent plane, flight attendants wore gloves and asked passengers not to help one another. Upon arrival at Newark Airport in New Jersey, a hollow silence echoed. Welcome home.

She also remembers questioning whether the evacuation was justified, especially because the situation in Comoros appeared much less dire (in terms of infection case numbers) than it did in the United States. It wasn’t until May 1 that the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Comoros; by then, in the month and a half since she had returned to New York, “there had been 304,372 reported COVID-19 cases in New York, a number that equated to half the population of Comoros.”

Moreover, in the United States, a crisis of public trust emerged—only compounding the threat posed by COVID-19. The situation rapidly devolved into a multifaceted culture war, one which pinned public health experts against conspiracy theorists and their sympathizers in government leadership. Anecdotal evidence and misinformation were disseminated to discourage mask wearing and promote unproven miracle cures, among other flashpoints of the culture war.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, for example, were frequently touted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as miracle drugs in the fight against COVID-19. With the benefit of hindsight, and given that credible public health experts have historically warned of the untested efficacy of these drugs, we are now certain that neither chloroquine nor hydroxychloroquine are safe to administer to COVID-19 patients. [7] Records from the Peace Corps Community Archive do show, however, the historical—and empirically proven—use of chloroquine as an antimalarial drug in locales such as Senegal:

Chloroquine Program Document, Shelf: 12.04.02, Box: “Cherie Lockett,” Folder: “Cherie Lockett, Senegal 1979-1981, Health Care N.D.,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

 Yamada grappled with guilt, for although the situation in the United States appeared dire upon her departure from Comoros, her evacuation ensured a better chance of survival:

It came down to privilege. After months of integrating — through language, food and dances — in the end, I am privileged. In a pandemic, I, as an American citizen and Peace Corps Volunteer, got to fly out to a country with better health care.

I could not escape the fact that I was a volunteer that would disappear if things got bad.

People often ask: how will the history of COVID-19 be written? What will history tell us about our response to a global pandemic? Historians and public historians themselves are asking different, more pointed questions: how will we remember our global response to COVID-19? Who gets to shape the memory of the American experience with COVID-19? Is it the historian’s place to weigh the immeasurable suffering and loss of human life against the resilience and moments of unity that will get us through this? Likewise, who and what dictates how Comorians remember COVID-19? What are the stakes if we omit the lived experiences of those who were and are the most vulnerable to COVID-19? Do public historians have a responsibility to interpret/challenge those actors who downplayed and mismanaged the crisis from its outset? For Yamada, her answer is fairly straightforward:

The situation of a country miles away, often labeled as one of the poorest in the world, is very much mirrored here in the United States.

The characteristics of denial, governmental inadequacies and systematic vulnerabilities of certain social groups over others are paralleled. However, one quality is certainly different: we have the resources, and yet, we dared to fail.

[1] Tom Hebert,  “Shakespeare and the Ins and Outs of Education Reform,” Peace Corps Writers, n.d., http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0109/109cllkheb1.html.

[2] Amy Lauren Fairchild, Lawrence O. Gostin, Ronald Bayer, “Contact Tracing’s Long, Turbulent History Holds Lessons for COVID-19,” The Conversation, July 16, 2020, https://theconversation.com/contact-tracings-long-turbulent-history-holds-lessons-for-covid-19-142511

[3] Peace Corps, RPCV Handbook: You’re on your way Home (Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services, n.d.), 10, https://files.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/staycon/rpcv_handbook.pdf

[4] World Health Organization, “Questions and Answers on Dengue Vaccines,” Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, April 20, 2018, https://www.who.int/immunization/research/development/dengue_q_and_a/en/

[5] Jody K. Olsen, “Peace Corps Announces Suspension of Volunteer Activities, Evacuations due to COVID-19,” Peace Corps, March 15, 2020, https://www.peacecorps.gov/news/library/peace-corps-announces-suspension-volunteer-activities-evacuations-due-covid-19/

[6] Kako Yamada, “Welcome Home? From Peace Corps Service to COVID-19 America,” Pacific Citizen, May 22, 2020, https://www.pacificcitizen.org/welcome-home-from-peace-corps-service-to-covid-19-america/

[7] United States Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Cautions Against Use of Hydroxychloroquine of Chloroquine for COVID-19 Outside of the Hospital Setting or a Clinical Trial due to Risk of Heart Rhythm Problems,” July 1, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-cautions-against-use-hydroxychloroquine-or-chloroquine-covid-19-outside-hospital-setting-or

 

 

Performing the Peace Corps Way

 

During the fall of 1965, Anne Williams was part of a group training for service in India at Columbia University. Two of her trainers, Murray Frank and Peggy Gruenbaum, had just gotten married, and of course, the trainees and staff of India Urban Community Development Group XXIII wrote and performed a play to express their congratulations—and worries over the coming assessments.

The play contained six scenes—with volunteers playing the parts of other volunteers—and several original musical numbers. Various scenes played off of common tropes about the Peace Corps, anxiety over placement, and teasing of other volunteers. Some scenes are reproduced here:

Scene 1
Opening Song (sung by the entire cast) to the tune of Hello Dolly.

Hel-lo trainees, and hel-lo staffers,
It’s so nice to have you both with us tonite,
We’re so tired, but we’re still tryin,
Speaking Hindi till we’re just about to drop.
We feel the room swayin, with the trainees stayin,
‘til assessment sends them on their way back home,
Sooooh, grab a seat fellas, ready yourself for a treat fellas,
Training will never be like this again.

Hel-lo Murray, and hel-lo Peggy,
Its so nice to surprise you both this very nite
You’re still smiling, with your wedding brewin’,
And the trainees wish to toast to you tonight.
While Murray Franks livin, we’ll have a short Thanksgiving,
While he’s away on his long honeymoon.
So take your wife Murray, it’s late in life Murray,
Bombay will never be the same again!

Cast

Roles Actors
Narrator Taradash
Barda Loren
Linas Falstein
Langdon Kevin
Ryan Nelson
Ladd Grear

Narrator: Sets scene, composite room introduces characters. Scene opens as the alarm goes off. Ladd, Ryan and Linas come staggering in, wine bottles in hand, singing “Irish Eyes.”

Barda: Jumps up with a start and says “Ap kaun hair? (Short pause, then) No good man, no good.”

Meanwhile Ryan, Linas, and Ladd staggering and trying to sing “Irish Eyes.”

Ladd: “Gotta go to goddam Hindi class.”

Linas: “No let’s go get another beer.”

Barda: “No good man, no good.”

Langdon: “Reaches in the laundry bag, pulls out a shirt, smells both pits, grabs the can of Right Guard and sprays it down, and says while putting the shirt on “cough, cough, mumble, mumble.”

Everyone sings Sixteen Words and Exits.

Sixteen Words”
You learn sixteen words,
And whaddya get;
Another day of Hindi
Another day of sweat.
Don’t push us Mr. Carr
‘Cause last night we spent in a bar.
We hope you don’t expect us to get very far.

“Officer Doris”
Chorus:
Gee Officer Doris, we’re very upset
We never had the chances that the others did get
And now that assessment’s about to take place
Now is the time to set forward our case. 

Solo:
Dear Officer Doris, you must understand, 
My local draft board is getting way out of hand.
They want me to fight, the Vietnam way, 
Ho-ly Mo-ses, must get to Bombay!

Chorus:
Gee loveable Doris, there’s much more to say,
There are other reasons we must get to Bombay.
So therefore you mu-st heed our pleas,
And when selection comes, no ginahis.

Solo:
Well Officer Doris, I’m sure up a tree
The girl I thought I’d left behind is now chasing me.
I don’t want to marry her, she’s really a pig,
Ho-ly, Je-sus, my plight you must dig!!

Solo:
Dear Officer Doris, we’ve had all our shots
Our arms are all aching, and hurting a lot
What good will the typhoid, plague and jaundice do,
If we’re all cut and sent back to school?

Chorus:
Well Officer Doris, our fate’s In your hands.
We’ve tried to get across, our various stands
Have nothing left to say that we feel we should, 
Gol-ly Do-ris, you must believe we’re good.

Scene VI

Cast

Roles Actors
Murray Loren
Peggy Morey


Narrator-
sets scene, after a hard day’s work Peggy and Murray finally get a chance to relax together.

Peggy: “Ho, Murray, I love to sit her and run my fingers thru your head.”

Murray Frank: “Yeah, they used to call me Furry Murray.”

Peggy: “Murray, do you think we’re too old?”

Murray Frank: “No, we’re not too old. (Pause) Too old for what?”

Peggy: “Well let me articulate it for you.”

Murray Frank: “Oh, no, I can’t stand it when you articulate it.”

Peggy: “Well, let me try anyway. I love you…hmmm?”

Murray Frank: “You love me? Hmm. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

Peggy: “Will you Murray me? (Wistfully)

Murray Frank:  Let me ask the Panchayat [village council, in Hindi]. I usually let them make the important decisions.”

Peggy: Pats him on head. “Oh, angel lambie pie cutie, honeydoll.”

Murray Frank: “Oh moonie Grunie”

Peggy: Pats him on belly. “How’s your tankie  Frankie?”

Murray Frank: “Listen Peggy, I understand your name is Gruenbaum.”

Peggy: “That’s right, Murray, but I’ll be Frank with you.”

Entire cast comes out and sings “Tonight.”

Tonight
Tonite, Tonite, is not just any nite,
Tonite, is the eve of assessment.
Tonite, tonite, our fates with you tonite,
And for some, dreams will stop where they are.
Sometimes the reading goes so slowly,
The Hindi drags along, yet still our hopes are high,
Peace Corps, our life, and the goals we
Seek tonite, may go-on, to-nite.

So thus tonite, we hope you like tonite,
Cause tonite, we had to let off some steam.
And Peg and Murray, we toast with you tonite,
For your love, to go on, for ever more,
Now we’ll end our little skit, and
Drink and dance along, with
Our hopes in our hearts,
O staff, think twice, and let
Our goals to go to Bombay, Gi Ha!

Before donating her materials to the Peace Corps Community Archive, Williams briefly noted where her fellow volunteers ended up.

Most of the cast members finished their training and departed for Bombay (now Mumbai), including Joseph Barda, Richard Falstein, Daniel Grear, Linas Jurcys, Kevin Kane, Michael Ladd, David Langdon, Kathleen Morey, Joseph Ryan, and Alan Taradash. In India, they did a mix of urban community development and traditional social work.

For information about all the the India 23 trainees see the Biographical Sketches booklet (kindly scanned by Eric Souers).

Anne Williams in India

Name: Anne Williams
Country of Service: India
Place of Service: Bombay and Calcutta
Dates in Service: 1965-1967
Keywords: Community Development, Health

Accession Date: January 24, 2020
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 1.5 linear feet

Document Types
• Correspondence
• Photographs
• Scrapbooks
• Reports
• Publications
• Sound
Biographical sketches