Cara V. James, PhD, President and CEO, Grantmakers In Health
In the two months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, individuals, organizations, governments and others have been working tirelessly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and to care for those affected by it. Some communities are beginning to reopen, while others wait for the virus to peak. As we shift to thinking about what is needed in order to safely reopen, we are also recognizing that life as we know it will forever be changed. As we reopen our communities and think about long-term recovery plans, we should also consider how to redesign our systems to achieve better health for everyone. Philanthropy has a vital role to play in this process.
The coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in several of our critical infrastructure sectors including health care and public health, food and agriculture, emergency services, and manufacturing—as well as challenges in other sectors, such as education. It has also exposed vulnerabilities in how we treat some of our essential workers and has raised our collective awareness about the critical role that agricultural workers, grocery store clerks, delivery workers, and other low wage workers play in keeping society functioning. As we shift our attention to recovery, addressing these realities will help minimize the impact of a future pandemic, and create healthier communities by providing better access to prevention services and health care, healthier foods, and the goods and services needed to support continued operations of many critical sectors.
Redesigning our systems to achieve better health for everyone will involve working across sectors to identify and understand the causes of the vulnerabilities and develop strategies to address them. It will also require working collaboratively through public-private partnerships. Philanthropy can help. Funders work at the local, state, regional, and national level to effect change, and have historically come together in times of crisis to pool resources and magnify their impact. Many funders have already begun to support COVID-19 recovery efforts in communities across the country. Identifying and sharing what works, lessons learned, and areas for development can lead to sustained changes.
The fact that COVID-19 continues to have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations is a major concern within health philanthropy. Older adults, people of color, tribal communities, and people living in rural areas have all been hard hit by the pandemic. The impact on nursing homes highlights challenges with providing long-term services and supports to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. The impact on rural communities has also garnered more attention recently, as more rural communities have been hard hit, further taxing already strained rural hospitals and rural EMS providers. The economic fallout has hit young adults, communities of color, and women the hardest in terms of unemployment rates, and early reports on the distribution of resources to small businesses indicate that some of the organizations most in need of funds may not have received them. Many people who are still working have jobs that are not amenable to telework, and struggle to get the resources needed to protect themselves.
While the evidence of disparities is clear, it is unclear if there is broad support for addressing inequities exposed by the pandemic. Philanthropy can help galvanize support for focusing on equity in the recovery, and can invest in efforts to achieve health equity across multiple dimensions. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Working to achieve equity for those who are most vulnerable and marginalized in our society will benefit all of us in the long run.
The world is forever changed because of COVID-19. As we turn our focus from immediate response work to reflecting on the needs of the future, we should prioritize the transformation of our health system, so that we are better prepared for the next pandemic and so that our system achieves better health for everyone. Building on the collaborations generated and strengthened by this pandemic—and exploring new opportunities to coordinate and align—will magnify our impact. Systemic change takes time and effort, but it is possible.