RPCV:  Really Prepared for Corona Virus


Milton J. Bennett, Ph.D.

March 22, 2020









As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, for years I’ve regaled friends and audiences with stories about two years spent on a tiny island in the Western Pacific: the tin house, the kerosene stove, the overwater toilet, the crabs (related to the toilet – don’t ask). Who’d have thought that a hidden benefit of the experience was preparation for the pandemic?


It started with the toilet paper panic. I wondered why I was not remotely tempted to stock up, when it occurred to me that I hadn’t had any toilet paper at all for those two years. To avoid the very unpleasant native practice of using coconut husk fibers, we PCVs carefully saved every international Time magazine we could find. The pages of that edition were thin and flimsy – perfect for the purpose. Occasionally we’d run out of Time, forcing us to use pages of the local newspaper printed on mimeograph paper. For those of you who don’t have vivid memories of mimeographing (or sniffing ditto fluid, a related activity), suffice it to say that the paper was only slightly better than coconut husks.


Now that I thought about it, the Peace Corps experience provided other survival skills. Even without refrigeration, we never worried much about food, since we could easily survive on rice steamed in a pot over the kerosene stove and canned tuna fish mixed with mayonnaise and pickle relish. The reason for canned rather than fresh fish on an island is a long story of ecological missteps– certainly relevant to the larger issue of climate change, and maybe to the emergence of nasty viruses – but I digress.


The lesson here is to keep a lot of canned tuna around, and to reject all imprecations of mayonnaise needing to be refrigerated after opening. Actually, it’s just fine long after the smell stings your nose. The pickle relish also lasts well in the heat, and tends to cut the increasingly strong taste of the mayonnaise. We had plenty of fresh fruit, but probably the pickle relish alone would have been enough protection from scurvy.


No cars, no television, no computers, no running water or electricity – no problem. These things are not necessary to life. What you do need is some basic infrastructure to support distribution of food and energy, healthcare, and a social network for meaningful relationships. Everything else is frosting – good tasting, but wickedly addicting. Nice to have, but not bad to lose.


So here are my tentative RPCV guidelines for surviving pandemics (in addition to keep your distance and wash your hands):

  1. Stay conscious and appreciative of life’s conveniences, so that their loss is no cause for panic
  2. Support a government that provides basic life support for all its citizens
  3. Nurture your family and social networks – you need them more than you know
  4. Subscribe to Time

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A Cross Cultural Journey Through a Pandemic – Cross Cultural Journeysreply
May 10, 2020 at 9:45 pm

[…] (a.k.a. PCV) on a tiny island in the West Pacific, and how it prepared him for right now. In his blog post “RPCV:  Really Prepared for Corona Virus” he writes: “It started with the […]

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