The moment

Date: March 11 2020

The virus that stopped the world

The coronavirus pandemic has upended modern life, and philanthropy’s role within it.

Fewer than three months from the emergence of a mysterious new virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic. By the start of April, half of the world’s population had gone into lockdown as countries sought to curb the virus’s spread and reduce the load on over-stretched health services. Modern life was turned upside down. Flights were grounded, borders sealed, and shops, workplaces and schools shuttered. Financial markets tumbled and major global events, including the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Dubai’s Expo 2020, were postponed.

The full long-term impact of Covid-19 is still unclear, but the virus represents the most significant global health event since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which claimed more than 50 million lives. Already, it has become the biggest economic and social disruptor since the Second World War, with the spread of the virus outpacing the global response.

Unlike recent Ebola outbreaks in Africa – which to many felt faraway and unrelatable – coronavirus has struck at the heart of the developed world. The proximity of this pandemic has brought disaster closer to all communities, regardless of wealth or geography.

But just as coronavirus is transforming how governments, businesses, and societies operate, it may also redefine the role philanthropy can play in dealing with mounting global threats.

Philanthropy, for the most part, has been a bit-player in campaigns against slower-burn global stressors such as climate change and pandemic response, both of which have historically attracted a fraction of giving. Yet, in a matter of weeks, it has shifted gears to become a frontline tool in the fight against Covid-19, with both donors and foundations announcing rapid-response funding to accelerate vaccine trials and help contain the spread of the virus. 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has committed more than $250m to fund public health agencies in the US, and boost detection and treatment support for at-risk populations in Africa and Asia. Its $2.5bn Strategic Investment Fund – with tools such as equity investments, loans, and volume guarantees – has been made available to low and middle-income countries to buy supplies, testing kits and protective gear for healthcare workers.

The foundation has also created a $125m fund with Wellcome and Mastercard to help speed the development of treatments for the virus, and remove barriers to drug development.

Swift donations have come too from Facebook, China’s Alibaba Group, Korea’s Samsung and Google, who are supporting medical research, as well as sending equipment such as masks, testing kits and ventilators to in-need communities in around the world.

image title image title image title image title image title image title
Business closures and lockdowns have brought global economies to a standstill. Photo: Getty Images.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, pledged to donate $1bn to fund coronavirus research, an announcement that marked the single largest donation since the start of the outbreak.

The WHO, meanwhile, has created the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Hosted by the US-based United Nations Foundation and the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, it enables individuals, corporations and institutions anywhere in the world to contribute to the international pandemic response.

As of April 26, a tracker by, a US-based organisation using data to map nonprofit financial flows and impact, had recorded the allocation of 1,952 private grants from 545 corporates and foundations. These had provided in excess of $8.3bn to more than 1,242 global beneficiaries, including governments, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, as well as other frontline organisations.

The coronavirus pandemic is a preview of how collective threats such as climate change and health crises can reshape the world. Stoked by underlying issues such as lack of preparedness and fragile health systems, the ravages of the virus have been a sharp reminder of the ties that bind us on a global scale, and the devastating consequences of underfunded and underprepared systems.

As philanthropy pivots to support the fight against coronavirus, there is an opportunity to create a longer-term shift in how it tackles unfolding global challenges. The epidemic may prove to be an inflection point: a catalyst for donors to rethink their response to intersecting threats that receive little attention and funding, but have the potential to reverberate across the world.

The world’s response to this pandemic will shape its future and help determine the health of economies and countries for years to come. Philanthropy has an opportunity to be on the frontline of a new push for global systemic change, if it chooses. — PA