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How To Reboot Philanthropy Post-COVID

A new report examines how COVID-19 triggered a switch of philanthropic funding to pandemic-related causes, whilst other philanthropy ground to a halt. 

Some of the work carried out by The End Fund, targeting neglected diseases

Soon after Coronavirus ripped through the world, science and high-impact donors responded to accelerate COVID-19-relevant research. Philanthropists have contributed more than US$13 billion to mitigate COVID-19’s effects, providing support to essential workers, financing the race for a vaccine and much more, according to a series of reports from the The Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy called Giving Smarter in the Age of COVID-19.

While this funding is playing a crucial role in addressing near term challenges, COVID-19 has diverted attention and resources from overhauling systems that were burdened even before the pandemic started, pointed out the report.

"While this unprecedented response to an unprecedented situation was urgent and necessary, in the background, other biomedical research efforts across many health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and depression came to an almost immediate halt. Months later, we are now beginning to dig out from underneath a public health and economic burden that lobs new curveballs almost every day," said the report. 

Sounding a similar note, philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, said in a recent interview with The Economist that the bigger problem the world is facing, is not deaths directly from COVID but the knock-on effects of it. "The scale of damage? Almost 90 percent of it will be due to non-COVID related things that have to do with these systems not working as well, less deliveries, less vaccinations, etc.," he said in the interview. "The systems were already on the edge and so fragile. The statistics will be millions of deaths."

Donors wanting to leave a lasting, positive effect on science, and indeed on the world, have provided risk capital to test new scientific hypotheses, and invest in scientists, the very people whose knowledge advances progress, said the Milken Institute. Today, biomedical research needs philanthropy to redouble these efforts in partnership with research communities and the nonprofits that serve them. Philanthropists are poised to lead—turning innovative research into treatments and cures that make a difference in patients’ lives—even during a global situation that has placed years of hard-earned progress at risk.

The report from the Milken Institute, examines the landscape across four issue areas:

·       Higher Education: Higher education institutions have faced many challenges since the beginning of the pandemic. Online learning, and its attendant challenges around access to resources, technology, and high-quality instruction have received significant attention. More important may be the long-term impact on mental heath and well-being that the switch to online learning has caused. While student mental health has been at the top of campus leaders' concerns, only 35 percent of school presidents said they planned to invest more in mental health services due to COVID-19.

·       America's mental health system: Beyond the challenges to students, the mental health ecosystem, which was already in crisis prior to the pandemic, is now under extreme pressure as the emotional well-being of people of all ages continues to be impacted. More than one third of Americans are showing clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety, deaths from drug overdoses (particularly in young people) are surging, and it is more difficult than ever to access mental health care. Philanthropic investment is needed to facilitate an immediate crisis response and support long-term solutions that build capacity across the system and make it easier to access to care.

·       Biomedical research: Due to the all-encompassing focus on finding treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19, research relevant to more than 10,000 diseases has stalled. Without attention, treatments and cures for diseases that millions of people around the world live with every day will be delayed and out of reach.

·       Planetary Health: An economic downturn and the ramifications of social distancing has reduced the ability of frontline conservation workers to mitigate negative impacts on the environment. Poaching is on the rise globally as rangers make tough calls about their safety and animal protection. Ecotourism around the world has stopped, removing a key conservation funding source. Environmental education and research opportunities are disappearing due to the uncertainty of funding.