Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, on how COVID-19 exposed deep inequities and how we can build a better tomorrow if we act today.
With our Seattle, Washington, summer in full swing, restaurants reopening, and parks filling with maskless families and sports teams, it can feel as though we’ve triumphed over COVID-19 and the pandemic is finally over.
But this is a mirage. The pandemic is not over — far from it. As I write this, a few countries have vaccinated more than half of their citizens, while the global average for new cases is higher than it was months ago. Entire regions are in the throes of a ferocious third wave.
One statistic succinctly explains this divergent experience between countries: of the first 1.5 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered, more than 80% went to people in just a handful of wealthy nations. Elsewhere, people are unprotected and vulnerable.
Inequity has fueled the pandemic’s severity, with certain groups — including people of color, women, and the poor — faring worse throughout in nearly every country. Now, vaccine inequity is unnecessarily prolonging the health crisis, with devastating reverberations.
That didn’t have to happen. And it can be fixed. If we work together, we can ease the current crisis and help prevent others down the road.
With all the money spent by governments during the pandemic, it’s reasonable to question whether there’s a role for philanthropy to play. Is charitable giving necessary to help the world control the virus and recover from the devastation it caused?
The answer is an emphatic yes.
While donor countries typically contribute significant resources to alleviate crises abroad, the severe downturn in economic activity has squeezed budgets and prompted painful cuts to aid. Meanwhile, many countries lack the resources required for large-scale stimulus programs to address the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. There’s less money available precisely at the time it’s needed most.
Philanthropy isn’t a panacea for a challenge of this magnitude, but philanthropies and private individuals can swiftly mobilize resources and help meet acute needs. We’re able to take risks that governments can’t and move quickly to fund the promising but unproven projects that can yield breakthrough results. Our efforts serve to raise awareness and catalyze greater involvement by both government and the private sector.
We can have a tremendous impact — impact that’s measured in human lives.
We’ve seen powerful examples of that throughout the pandemic, with funders around the world committing more than US$ 24 billion toward COVID-19 response activities as of mid-year.
MacKenzie Scott made more than US$ 8.6 billion in grants over a 12-month period including US$ 5 billion to assist communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, notably prioritizing organizations led by women and people of color. Jeff Skoll contributed US$ 100m to fund COVID-19 response activities and teamed up with Sir Richard Branson and Strive Masiyiwa on an initiative to build ventilators in Africa. In India, Azim Premji quickly contributed more than US$ 150m toward the COVID-19 response in his home country, and he and many other Indian philanthropists expanded their support amid India’s devastating second wave earlier this year. These are just a few of many examples.
For our part, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed more than US$ 1.8 billion to strengthen the global pandemic response. Our funding has supported the development of tests, treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19; the delivery of these tools to low- and middle-income countries; country-specific and regional responses in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia; and global efforts to design and implement testing, tracing, and other urgent public health actions.
Through Gates Philanthropy Partners, we also established the Combating COVID-19 Fund to help channel charitable resources around the world toward pandemic response initiatives. In just over a year, the fund received more than US$ 100m in contributions. That money has helped advance extraordinary scientific breakthroughs that have yielded vaccines, treatments, and tests to combat COVID-19.
As people in countries where vaccines are abundant embrace a return to pre-pandemic life, there is still much for philanthropists to do — both to contain the spread of COVID-19 globally and to tackle the systemic inequities the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated.
First, until vaccines are readily available in every country, working toward that goal must remain the highest priority. It’s the only way to sustainably halt transmission of the virus and bring the pandemic under control. Whatever safety we may feel in the interim is illusory; so long as the virus continues to spread in even one country, it can mutate into more dangerous variants — including variants that could evade the protection afforded by current vaccines.
Achieving global vaccine coverage, as well as the ongoing medical response to new cases, will continue to require resources that governments alone may be unable to mobilize. Philanthropy remains an invaluable source of money to help bridge that gap.
Second, we must expand the resources available to organizations that are working to address the many social and economic needs generated by nearly two years of global turmoil. In particular, we should focus on those active in marginalized and under-served communities. Helping to uplift those who have been most heavily impacted and historically left behind will help to accelerate a sustainable recovery.
Finally, philanthropists should take a good look at the systems that failed so completely during the pandemic. The health systems that in the U.S. allowed Native American, Black, and Hispanic people to die of COVID-19 at roughly twice the rate of white people. The education systems across much of the world that put girls at risk of early marriage when they shuttered schools. The child care systems in many countries that simply melted away when they were most needed.
These systems are ripe for long-term investments to make them more resilient, equitable, and capable of supporting every individual’s well-being. Priority should be given to initiatives that place women and girls at the center of those efforts, given the disproportionate damage the pandemic has inflicted on their lives.
These steps will help control the pandemic, accelerate recovery, and strengthen our collective resilience to withstand future shocks — whether they come in the form of a pandemic, climate change, or anything else. By acting now, philanthropists can lay the groundwork for a stronger, more equitable world.