I propose a United States Corona Corps: an organization in the long tradition of youth service, from Mormon missionaries to Teach for America to the Peace Corps, but one laser-focused on the crisis at hand.
While new cases of covid-19 are declining in much — but not all — of the country, a second wave of infections is likely coming in the fall, and it will hit a population already short on emotional, physical and financial resources. But we do not need to once again shut down our society to prevent that second wave. We have seen a better system work elsewhere: South Korea has even published a playbook. The proven formula for flattening the curve without putting the economy back in an induced coma is simple: testing, tracing and isolation. That is, we need widespread testing followed by the swift identification and temporary isolation of everyone who has come in contact with infected people.
This system requires an army of tracers out in the field. We do not have nearly enough.
The United States entered the pandemic with 2,200 tracers, or “disease intervention specialists,” as they are formally known. Working for the CDC and local health agencies, they have until now been focused on STDs and food-borne illnesses, and are truly unsung heroes. Today, we need 180,000 of these heroes, according to public health experts.
Enter the Corona Corps: a volunteer army of 18- to 24-year-olds, trained and equipped to fight the virus — and reshape the trajectory of their own lives. The Corps’ main job would be contact tracing: interviewing infected people, evaluating the nature of their contacts and reaching out to those put at risk. The Corps would also staff testing centers across the country and work with people who are required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear.
The government-funded Corona Corps would pay their costs and a modest wage, say $2,500 a month. Those who serve at least six months would receive a credit toward educational costs or student loan debt.
This investment would pay dividends in three ways. First, it would cauterize the spread of the coronavirus, thus saving lives, and saving us all from another multi-month lockdown. Second, it would train a generation of young people in valuable skills and novel life experience. Tracers would learn to work independently and to interact on sensitive issues with people of varying backgrounds. Some might get crash training in epidemiology, social work, programming or operational management — skills directly relevant to future employment.
The third dividend is less quantifiable, but perhaps the most important over the long term: bridging partisan divides. Between 1965 and 1975, more than two-thirds of the members of Congress had served their country in uniform. The important legislative achievements of those years were shaped by leaders who shared that bond, larger than politics or party. Today, fewer than 20 percent have that common bond.
The military does not have a monopoly on service. Since the founding of the Peace Corps in 1961, almost a quarter of a million of its volunteers have served in 142 countries. Public service generates the empathy so deeply needed in our hyperpartisan climate. The Corona Corps could provide it.
Other have had similar ideas; for example, a Senate bill introduced last month calls for employing the current Peace Corps volunteers displaced from their jobs by the pandemic. Rather than building the Corona Corps from scratch, using those volunteers and expanding their mandate might provide an opportunity to build on existing infrastructures.
Service in the Corps would not be without risk. But we send young people to the front lines of wars not because they are immune from bullets, but because someone must go. And we know that young adults face much lower risk from covid-19 than older people. Corps members would be regularly tested, and if they were infected, they would have an overwhelming likelihood not just of recovering, but of developing antibodies.
A Corona Corps would not be cheap: 180,000 members at, I estimate, $60,000 each for compensation, training and support would cost nearly $11 billion. The government could no doubt find a way to make it cost twice that. Yet that’s a rounding error on the sums allocated for stimulus and unemployment to date.
Consider it a warranty against needing another multitrillion-dollar rescue package, and an investment in the future. An army of super-soldiers stands ready to battle covid-19, and our partisan divide. Let’s arm them.