Breaking the chain: Middle East donors funding the pandemic response

Philanthropists, businesses and foundations across the Arab region are stepping up to support the fight against coronavirus

Middle Eastern donors are pledging millions of dollars to global efforts to combat coronavirus and to help those whose lives have been thrown into crisis by the worst health crisis on record. 

Philanthropists, companies and governments have given cash and in-kind donations, as well as assistance in the form of medical supplies, as the global community races to curb the virus’ spread, find a vaccine, and protect vulnerable communities.

Standout initiatives include $500m from Saudi Arabia to speed the development of new vaccines and treatments; $60m from Kuwait to the World Health Organisation (WHO); and the UAE Food Bank’s pledge to deliver 10 million meals to low-income workers and families hit by the pandemic. 

Regional philanthropists have also given generously. Emirati businessman Abdul Rahim Al Zarooni, chairman of the Al Zarooni Group, committed $2.7m for healthcare clinics to buy medical supplies. Dubai’s Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, a retail and construction conglomerate, has donated $3.5m to the emirate’s education and health authorities to bolster distant learning initiatives and prevent the spread of the virus.

UAE-based businessman Shamsheer Vayalil, the founder of VPS Healthcare and the VPS Foundation, has given hygiene and healthcare products worth $272,000 to the UAE’s Ministry of Education. Dr Vayalil has also offered up the use of a 500-bed hospital in Delhi to help India manage its growing caseload.

In early April, Egypt’s Sawiris Foundation for Social Development announced it would donate $6.37m to curb the spread of the virus in the country. Of this, $2.5m will go to support low-income workers and the remaining $3.8m to bolster government-led prevention efforts.

A doctor working in Gaza, Palestine. Photo by UNRWA

Research focus

A Saudi-funded lab, The Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics at Imperial College London, has been at the forefront of global response to coronavirus.

The Jameel Institute, which opened last year with endowment funding from Saudi’s Jameel family, has used its data modelling and computer science to inform policy-making in countries including the US and the UK on how to control the spread of the virus.

Separately, the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (or the Jameel Clinic) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on new antiretrovirals to treat Covid-19, as well as antibiotics to treat the deadly drug-resistant pneumonia affecting virus-struck patients.

Saudi companies and individuals have also made financial and in-kind contributions worth almost $266m to the Ministry of Health’s coronavirus fund. The kingdom’s banks and energy firms have led the way with donations of $133m and $43m respectively, according to local media reports.

In Kuwait, the government raised $30m in a single day after launching an online appeal in response to the pandemic. More than 200,000 people donated to the Ministry of Social Affairs campaign, which funnels donations to 41 charities that are supporting health centres and quarantine facilities, as well as low-income workers. 

Community spirit

Much of the UAE’s corporate and other individual donations have been channelled through Abu Dhabi’s Authority of Social Contribution (Ma’an), which launched the ‘Together We Are Good’ appeal in March to mobilise funds for the country’s pandemic response. 

In the campaign's first 24 hours it raised more than $12.3m, including a single gift of $3.3m. As of April 14, it had collected contributions worth more than $27.29m.

“It is incredible to see so many people and businesses unite together and show their support,” said Ma’an director general, Salama Al Ameemi. “It is evidence that Abu Dhabi, and the UAE, is a hugely philanthropic society with everyone ready to step up and do what they can to help the country through this period.”

Corporates who have contributed to the Ma’an appeal include Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, which pledged $6.8m, and Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company, which gave $816,000. 

In addition to financial donations, a number of hospitality firms have offered health workers the free use of hotels rooms, while hundreds of residents have registered as volunteers for community initiatives. 

In Dubai, the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department is running the Social Solidarity Fund Against Covid-19. Donations to date include $2.72m from Emirates Islamic, $4.1m from the Dutco group of companies, and $2.72m from the Dubai Chamber.

Pandemic relief

A separate fund has been launched by the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority, Emirates Red Crescent, and other charities in the country. 

The initiative will support the national disinfection programme, deliver food and water parcels to those in need - including senior citizens, orphans, and those who have lost their jobs due to the virus - as well as help schools deliver distance learning by providing laptops and online tutorials.

There is also the UAE Food Bank’s 10 million meals initiative, which is being overseen by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, and claims to be the country’s biggest-ever food distribution drive. The campaign invites companies, philanthropists and the public to contribute with either financial or in-kind food donations to support low-income families and people affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“People are suffering badly. It's not a good scenario”          Across the UAE, scores of restaurants are offering free or low-cost meals for people in need, which are being distributed by licensed charities. Among them is the Dar Al Ber Society, which is supporting several dozen labour camps and providing more than 9,000 meals a day, as well as hygiene products, to workers who have either not received their wages or who have lost their jobs.

Juhi Yasmeen Khan, Dar Al Ber’s CSR and charity initiatives expert, said the level of need was unprecedented, with more than 130,000 meals distributed since the start of the pandemic.

“People are calling because they have lost their jobs and they can’t pay their rent and are overdue on loans,” she said. “People are suffering badly. It's not a good scenario.”

Other grassroots initiatives have also been distributing food parcels and hygiene kits. Among them is Stop and Help, which uses Facebook to connect families in need to willing donors, who then organise delivery of food boxes. In the three weeks since it began, the campaign has delivered more than 1,000 food parcels around Dubai.

Men wait for food parcels from the Egyptian Food Bank in Cairo. Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP (Getty Images)

Another is Box of Hope, which was started by Dubai-based businessman Harmeek Singh. Working with Dubai Municipality, UAE Food Bank, and other local charitable organisations, he has been providing free meal boxes to labour camps where blue-collar workers are being quarantined.

"It is important for us to stand by each other and do the best we can,” said Singh. “The main objective of Box of Hope is to inject hope, and at this juncture we need to be able to provide essential needs such as food.”

On a more micro level, volunteers from the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) in Dubai have been distributing food and personal protection items like masks, gloves, hand sanitisers supplies to city residents with support from local Keralite restaurants and other businesses. KMCC has also opened a helpdesk to help residents gain information about testing and medical help.

Food banks step up

In Egypt, the Egyptian Food Bank has launched the Daily Workers Support programme to support those who have lost their job due to the pandemic. The scheme aims to deliver 500,000 food boxes a month to affected families. Moez El Shohdi, chief executive of the food bank, said the nonprofit is also working to launch similar schemes in other countries in the region.

The Egyptian Cure Bank, meanwhile, is providing detergents and sanitizers to hospitals and their staff to use at home, and giving out ‘sanitizer bags’ to low-income families. The nonprofit has also raised money to buy more than 100 ventilators for national hospitals, and has partnered with the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI) to repair and upgrade Ministry of Health ventilators, putting nearly 500 machines back into use over a two-week period.

In Jordan, more than 20 organisations have come together to support so-called daily wage workers, whose informal jobs have stopped due to virus-related curbs on movement. Since its launch on March 22, an appeal hosted by the country’s Naua crowdfunding site has raised $2m, and more than 42,000 families have received food parcels.

According to local press reports, Arab Bank Group has donated $4.23m and Jordan's Housing Bank has given $2.15m in support of national efforts to slow the spread of the virus and provide medical care to those affected.

In Lebanon, where the government is straining under the weight of debt and a currency crisis, local organisations have been stepping up. Ketfe bi Ketfak (my shoulder with your shoulder), which was started by students, has been disbursing food parcels. Shaabemasouliyati (my people are my responsibility), meanwhile, says it is receiving over 1,000 calls a day, compared to 100 per week before the pandemic began, asking for food and sanitization products.

The Lebanese Food Bank says demand for food boxes has soared by 50 per cent since the country implemented lockdown measures. The boxes, which are funded by donations - including $300,000 from Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney - and distributed via community NGOs, can feed a family of four for up to one month. These now also include hygiene kits including sanitizers and soap, as well as public health information pamphlets.

State support

Middle Eastern governments have also given generously to support the global pandemic response. Kuwait, with a $60m donation, is the largest individual contributor to date to the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Response Fund, which has also received money from Saudi Arabia ($10m) and Qatar ($5m).

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has pledged $500m to be allocated to a range of agencies. It will give $150m to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI), $150m to the Gavi vaccine alliance, and $200m  to other health organisations and initiatives.

“This support will have a massive impact, helping us to support health systems, protect health workers, deliver diagnostics and boost surveillance in countries that need support,” said Gavi CEO Dr Seth Berkley. “Health systems in lower-income countries face one of the biggest tests in living memory.”

The UAE has already sent planes carrying medical equipment and supplies to Italy, Iran, Cyprus, Mauritania, and Pakistan, and in April, it chartered an Etihad 737-700 of WHO supplies to the World Food Programme’s hub in Addis Ababa for onward distribution in Africa.

Earlier, in March, the UAE flew 215 foreign nationals out of China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus. The students, who were from a range of “friendly nations” - including Syria, Iraq, Mauritania, Sudan, Brazil, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan - were kept in quarantine for 14 days at a medical facility in Abu Dhabi. All those evacuated have since tested negative.