Philanthropy in the time of Covid-19

Pushpa Sundar | Updated on April 01, 2020

Apart from large donations, crises such as this pandemic need long-term, innovative procedures in place to ease the burden on humanity

Disasters like the present Covid-19 pandemic are by their very nature unforeseen, and require a response not only on an unprecedented scale but one not thought of before. By virtue of this, any government’s resources to meet such a contingency, not only in terms of money and human resources but also in innovative thinking to keep one step ahead of the menace, are sorely stretched. In such a situation, what should the response of philanthropy be?

Before going any further, it’s useful to reiterate the distinction between charity and philanthropy. Each has a distinctive role to play, as much in an emergency as in usual circumstances. Charity is the immediate, impulsive and compassionate response to distress, and is essentially for the short term. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a reasoned approach keeping in mind the larger picture and adopts a long-term perspective.

What the response of charity to today’s disaster is obvious, ie providing food and shelter to the poorest who have lost livelihoods and have no safety net — and especially migrant workers whose lot is the worst, living as they are in limbo, neither at home in their States nor with proper support in the big metros.

As in the case of demonetisation, the lockdown measures do not seem to have taken the last mile connection into account, viz. the problem of domestic migrants, their orderly dispersal, providing transport for their relocation or settlement in situ by opening temporary shelters provision of food and sanitary facilities like mobile toilets, masks, sanitisers, and mass testing where needed, and so on. Indians stranded in other countries on the other hand, have received considerate treatment from the government, and offered transport back home.

Charitable moves

Fortunately, a number of civil society organisations have mobilised their teams to offer help where needed. But their work is constrained by the need for safety from infection. In any case, it needs to be supplemented by private businesses offering tents and tent material, vehicles for transportation of dry rations and cooked food as well as for taking migrants home, providing masks, and so on.

Factories need to switch some of their machines and manufacturing capacity to produce masks, ventilators sanitisers and prefabricated units for setting up hospitals and isolation wards; they can also make their waste disposal plants available for disposing of medical and other waste. Above all, industry should ensure that dealers hold the price line of essential goods and not jack up prices, as many are reportedly doing.

Given the specialised nature of medical care required, providing medicines and other services by ordinary individuals is out of the question. Therefore supplementing government’s resources through donations, small and big, is an obvious measure for those wishing to be charitable. And many are following the government’s appeal to donate to the PM-Cares fund.

Apart from the common man, some big donors have also responded to the crisis in their own way. For instance Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra has offered to convert Mahindra Holiday resorts as temporary care facilities, as well as to immediately begin work on using their manufacturing facilities to make ventilators. In addition, he has also pledged that the Mahindra Foundation will create a fund to assist SMEs and SMBs, the hardest hit in the value chain.

Anil Agarwal, the promoter of Vedanta, has pledged ₹100 crore towards fighting the pandemic, though what exactly he will do apart from helping daily-wage earners is not clear. Other industrialists and celebrities from the world of Bollywood and sports have also pledged a few crores each to support small vendors, self-employed artisans, and others who have lost wages and do not have medical insurance or coverage. Reliance Industries Ltd announced that it is enhancing production capacities to manufacture 1,00,000 face-masks daily and a large number of protective equipment like suits.

All such measures will no doubt be appreciated by the public and the government, and help us cope with the crisis and its immediate aftermath. Every little counts. But large amounts notwithstanding, these measures are essentially charitable in nature and cannot be called philanthropy as such.

Long-term measures

Over and above such immediate palliative measures, philanthropy is required on a large scale for long-term measures to prevent the recurrence of such a crisis, and to be better prepared if one occurs. What is needed is not only big money but also visionary thinking, and risk-taking in case of possible failure. This is not much in evidence.

Even those who have announced large sums of money have not said what they will use it for, beyond taking care of the immediate fallout. Contrast this with the approach of Bill Gates.

As early as 2015, Bill Gates had foreseen that not missiles but microbes and viruses would pose the bigger danger to humanity. Instead of spending on military preparedness, he advocated spending on building a good response system using science and technology: spending on biotechnology to research on vaccines, collaboration across the globe between governments and philanthropists to build a global epidemic fund — versions of which were earlier advocated by George Bush and Barack Obama — and cooperation between the medical and military establishments in times of medical emergency for movement of men and materials.

Other measures which have been suggested are building a pandemic response infrastructure which would include strong health systems, a reserve medical corps which can move to trouble spots for rapid response, preparation and running of simulation games to deal with germs or germ warfare; increasing capacity for advanced diagnostics, developing at-home testing kits, designing and putting in place hospitals and other isolation facilities at minimum notice, and more efficient disposal systems for infected bodies and materials.

One instance of some really out-of-the-box thinking which has been taken in India and which must be commended is the conversion of train compartments into fully equipped isolation wards. It is this kind of innovation which needs to be encouraged in engineering, medical and other research institutions.

All the above would need big thinking and big money, for which governments needs to rope in philanthropists, not only for the money but for ideas and experiments, which if successful could be scaled up by governments. We need philanthropy not only to put in a long-term structure for prevention and treatment but also to test new ideas, processes and institutions to deal with such threats in the future. Gates estimates that it would require around $3 trillion at a global level.

Many of the big names in global philanthropy such as Jack Ma, Bill Gates, Zukerberg and our own Azim Premji have committed large sums of money. Last month, Gates committed up to $100 million to combat coronavirus and Premji has donated ₹50,000 crores, but few have articulated a long-term vision. One hopes that at least some of the big money announced so far will be used for forward planning.

Moreover, in a country with over 100 billionaires, we need many more to come forward than the handful who have already donated large sums. But even more than their money, we need their entrepreneurial vision, their management and execution skills, and their willingness to collaborate with each other, and with governments waiting to see that such global pandemics become a thing of the past, will our philanthropists take up the challenge and step up to the plate please?

The writer is author of ‘Giving With A Thousand Hands: The Changing Face of Indian Philanthropy’

Published on April 01, 2020

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