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Against the backdrop of the global epidemic, the COVID-19 outbreak has surfaced global role models whom we can learn from to respond effectively and efficiently to the threat. It has proven that no one-off responses can tackle such unpredictable outbreaks; instead, systemic, collaborative, and long-term efforts are required. As communities step up to tackle this disease, it is an opportune time to reflect on how philanthropy can take proactive steps to prepare for future outbreaks.
Here are four ways in which philanthropy can plug systemic gaps in the ecosystem.
1. Investing in Human Capital for Public Emergency Management
According to our Philanthropy in China report, the shortage of talent and specialists is a pertinent foundational issue in the Chinese philanthropy sector, which will only worsen as the sector continues to grow. The COVID-19 outbreak has emphasised the urgency to have talent with strong experience in both philanthropy and public emergency management. To understand how best to support public health emergency management, philanthropic organizations should increase their engagement with local communities, work with those who directly interface with vulnerable residents and families and tap into their intelligence about what has worked best in the past and protocols that have been most effective.
Investing in professional intermediary organizations, such as legal and policy advisors, may also help to enhance the capacity of the ecosystem to respond nimbly in emergencies. Besides facilitating connections between philanthropy and nonprofits, intermediaries can also provide resources such as operational knowledge, strategic advice and expertise to improve the effectiveness and efficiency in the social sector.
2. Catalysing R&D investments and innovations
Sustained R&D investments in vaccines, treatments, virus gene screening and diagnostics are crucial to prevent future catastrophic outbreaks. Developing and manufacturing any vaccine for infectious diseases can be a risky investment for the private sector, and the government may not have the capital to take up first-loss position. Philanthropy can play a key role in not only supporting R&D costs and building technical capabilities, but also motivating commercial capital to leverage social investments.
Collaborative philanthropic instruments can also pool resources to fund high-cost but high-potential biotechnology companies and academic institutions towards common goals. A leading role model came in the form of Chinese conglomerate China Evergrande Group, a property development company that provided a $115 million grant to a diverse team of prominent researchers who are tackling COVID-19. Despite potential challenges around competing funding priorities, philanthropic funding offers the flexibility to enter new and under-supported research fields.
3. Committing to research data sharing
COVID-19 has become a global emergency and the infection curve is still rising. To flatten the pandemic curve, global collaboration will be fundamental. In particular, global transparency around research findings and data will be critical in ensuring public health response is effective in saving lives.
Technology has been revolutionizing the ways knowledge and information are being shared to respond more effectively on the COVID-19 outbreak. Individuals are highly engaged in communicating updates and donating funds to priority areas; Big data has been crucial in tracing virus carriers, while automated technologies could be useful for contactless delivery and diagnosis to minimise the risk of cross-infection. In fact, big tech corporations have the opportunity to take advantage of these trends to improve knowledge sharing delivery.
Philanthropic organisations could also lead collaborative efforts by finding consensus and analysing emerging findings that can aid the global response. While local philanthropists could adapt innovative practices from foreign experience, they could also help international communities better understand the unique needs of the local communities. For example, a significant part of the Gates Foundation’s funds will go to professional organizations (e.g., the World Health Organisation (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), frontline responders in China and other high-risk developing countries to catalyze a rapid and effective international response.
4. Seeking out marginalized groups
The variance in the way cases multiplied in different local contexts has exposed worrying health-care disparities within many countries. Vulnerable communities who are already facing restricted access to health care and welfare systems will need the right resources to protect themselves adequately in emergencies. As part of the COVID-19 response, the Shanghai United Foundation and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust for example set up special funds to comprehensively support vulnerable groups in their local communities, including the elderly, the disabled, migrants, and children. For those who cannot afford precautionary measures in COVID-19, Google has created a fund to support them. It will provide paid sick leaves to all Googles’ contract and temporary employees in quarantine or with potential symptoms.
Other than funding large-scale provision of medical supplies such as surgical masks, philanthropy could also dedicate resources to develop ecosystem-wide mitigation programs. For example, to soften the negative economic implications from COVID-19, philanthropy, in collaboration with government authorities, could also introduce relief or subsidy programs. If wholesale markets face an oversupply of agricultural products when they are closed during the outbreak, philanthropic organizations could support building e-commerce business to help farmers sell their products.
Despite its desire to contain fear and panic, WHO has finally declared COVID-19 a pandemic – the highest level classification to describe a disease outbreak. This signals a wake-up call in the face of “alarming levels of spread and severity, and the alarming levels of inaction”, according to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO. Against this sobering backdrop, let’s mobilise our resources to change the course of this pandemic.