Six months ago, for the first time in its history, the Peace Corps suspended all operations as the coronavirus raced around the globe. Now it is preparing to send volunteers back into the field.
But the planning for the redeployment of Americans around a world shaken by the pandemic comes as the agency faces renewed questions about the quality of its medical care, touched off in part by the death of a 24-year-old volunteer from undiagnosed malaria.
The volunteer, Bernice Heiderman, died alone in a hotel room in Comoros, off Africa’s east coast, in 2018, after sending desperate text messages to her family. She told them that her Peace Corps doctor was not taking her complaints seriously.
An investigation by the agency’s inspector general documented a string of problems. Ms. Heiderman’s doctor, the investigation found, had “limited training in tropical medicine,” and failed to test for malaria — an obvious diagnosis. And the agency’s medical experts in Washington, with whom he consulted, never asked him to.
“Had she received timely treatment,” the inspector general concluded, “she could have made a rapid, full recovery.”
In March, the Peace Corps evacuated more than 7,000 volunteers from more than 60 countries. It is now accepting applications for them to return to service. If conditions permit, officials said, some may return to their posts by the end of the year, and new volunteers may begin as early as Jan. 1.
The agency said in an emailed statement that it “continues to grieve the tragic loss of volunteer Bernice Heiderman” and that it had “initiated several steps to further strengthen health care for volunteers.”
In other global developments:
Ireland is considering reimposing a national lockdown for four weeks, after concern from public health officials over rising infections. Under the proposed restrictions, which local media said government leaders would discuss with the country’s chief medical officer on Monday, most people would be barred from leaving home except to exercise or for essential reasons. Almost 1,000 new cases were reported from the weekend as of Sunday. Ireland has recorded a total of 38,032 cases and 1,810 deaths.
Pope Francis criticized the lack of unity in the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in a document released on Sunday. “Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident,” Francis said in the encyclical, the most authoritative form of papal teaching. “For all our hyperconnectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.”