5 Ways Being a Peace Corps Volunteer Prepares You for a Pandemic

Peace Corps Service and Quarantine have a few things in common.

OK, so this post is a little tongue-in-cheek. I understand, we are living in unprecedented times. It’s scary. And yet, writing from my safe, cozy, sturdy home in Memphis, with lights and internet and plumbing, I still feel immensely privileged. I can leave the house once a week for groceries. I can store my food. I have electricity. I can teleconnect with friends and doctors if I need help. I can drive somewhere from the safety of my own car.

In Peace Corps Madagascar, life was very different. However, some aspects of volunteer life are strikingly similar to my new day-to-day reality, quarantined and stateside.

Here are five ways being a Peace Corps Volunteer prepared me to handle this pandemic:

  1. Isolation. Even though I lived in a tight-knit community, I was thousands of miles away from family, friends, and everything familiar. The only way I could communicate was via Facebook messenger, which worked about 50% of the time, or long-distance phone calls, which worked about 75% of the time. On trips to my banking town (the town closest to me with electricity, computers, and ATMs), I would schedule video calls with my parents and friends, getting to see their lovely faces a few times a month.
  2. Telemedicine. In my village, there was one clinic with one doctor who was not always there. The nearest hospital was an hour away…the nearest good hospital was a seven hour drive. We relied on telemedicine constantly, sending in pictures of our weird rashes and describing in detail the shape of our poops to our doctors in the capital (seriously, they’re saints). We took our own temperatures and were trained on self-medicating. I learned that if I have a low-grade fever and less than 4 bouts of diarrhea in an hour, I’m fine, take two tylenol and call me in the morning.
  3. Comfortability with Uncertainty. Will the cyclone hit? Will we have school tomorrow? Will this teacher strike really last the rest of the year? (It did).  Life in the Peace Corps is  unpredictable…uncertainty is the only constant. Many times, I walked to school only to discover that someone in the community had passed away, so we weren’t having class, or the local elections had been tampered with, so we weren’t having class, or the deluge that passed through had flooded the next village, so we weren’t having class. I always had to be flexible and learn not to take it personally if no one showed up to school, or no one gave me a warning before they came to collect me for a meeting I didn’t know I had.
  4. Creative Self-Care. Maintaining your mental and physical health is critical in Peace Corps. As you’re far away from gyms, best friends who double as therapists, brew-pubs, and other familiar spots that help you decompress from a stressful week, you have to learn to adapt. I got really good at creating my own yoga routines and exercising in a 10 foot by 8 foot space. I learned that music cures loneliness, journaling feeds my soul, and sometimes you just need to shut the door and dance it out. Sure, I couldn’t have a delicious IPA and talk about the meaning of life with my friends, but I adapted. I found other things to replace that feeling of satisfaction and release.
  5. Resilience…and knowing when to ask for help. Peace Corps is hard. Being in this pandemic is also, extremely, hard. Despite all the self care and adaptability, I learned over my three years of service that I simply can’t get through everything on my own. No matter how good I get at detecting my own red flags or adapting to changing circumstances, sometimes you just need help. Help is always there if you ask for it. Sometimes this meant calling my parents and saying, “I just need to say things,” and preceding to word vomit all over them for the next 40 minutes (yes, they’re also saints).  Sometimes it would be sitting down with my kind neighbor and complaining, while she nodded her head, laughed, and fed the chickens. (I miss her a lot).  A few times it meant calling my doctors and asking to speak to a professional. No shame, no stigma, just a listening ear to help process the jumbled thoughts in your head. All of these are good options.

Just like in Peace Corps, we are all in this together. Nobody knows when or how this is going to end, but the best thing we can do is to take care of ourselves and each other. Reach out, call a friend, go on a walk, cook some tasty food, breathe. Inhale, exhale.

It’s going to be okay.