Don’t dismiss philanthropy: it’s crucial during the coronavirus crisis

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Beth Breeze and Paul Ramsbottome
28 Apr 2020

In Bill Gates’ eerily prescient 2015 Ted Talk he states that “the greatest risk of global catastrophe … is not missiles but microbes”, which, he predicted, could claim over 10 million lives and wipe $3tn (£2.4tn) off the global economy.

Gates put his money where his crystal ball was, contributing $100m to help establish the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), a global alliance of public, private and philanthropic funding to develop vaccines and improve collective responses to newly emerging infectious diseases. Cepi was launched at Davos 2017, the annual gathering of global elites, and is now a key player in the race to develop a vaccine to halt the Covid-19 pandemic. So this seems a good moment to highlight philanthropy’s essential and distinct role. In the current crisis, we need it more than ever, despite the cynicism and derision it often receives.

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There is a widespread view that philanthropic elites should stay out of trying to solve the world’s problems and that “decent societies” should only deploy funds raised through the tax system. But private donors – big and small – are making a vital threefold contribution to tackling the coronavirus: by funding research, providing relief and preparing to rebuild for the future.
In addition to new money being poured into Cepi (including £40m from the UK’s Wellcome Trust), the scientific effort to rapidly produce both treatment and cure has benefited from an investment of £5m over the past few years by the Wolfson Foundation to upgrade the UK’s leading infectious disease laboratories. Private philanthropy has always enjoyed more freedom than the state and even the private sector to make longer-term and potentially riskier investments – no voters needed persuading or shareholders placating before this money could be spent.

Second, donors are stepping up to fund immediate relief for those hit hardest by the lockdown, as well as those on the frontline. The food bank network has received £1m from UK billionaire David Sainsbury, Money-Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis has pledged £1.9m for charities helping those in financial crisis, and dozens of private funders have contributed to the new National Emergencies Trust to support those most in need. The importance of mass collective giving, as well as single major gifts, has been underlined by the success of 99-year-old war veteran Tom Moore, whose fundraising effort for NHS charities has reached almost £30m – and is still rising.

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