How to Help the Most Vulnerable Through the Pandemic

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

As governments, businesses, and individuals scramble to respond to the threat of a coronavirus pandemic, those of us who work at nonprofits and foundations rightly ask what we can do to make a difference. This is even more challenging when the constant media and social-media barrage provides so little useful information that anyone can act on but instead is contributing to unhelpful anxiety and worry.

While I now advise foundations and other organizations as the co-CEO of a nonprofit consulting firm, I have a perspective on what makes a difference gleaned from a career as a pediatrician and as medical director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health during the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus. I learned from experience that responses during a time of crisis are only as good as the strength of preparedness, support systems, and relationships that existed before the crisis.

Perhaps even more important, my medical career hammered home a crucial lesson for philanthropy: Any natural disaster or public-health emergency always takes an increased toll on those groups who were marginalized or excluded before the emergency. These groups often have been denied the material resources to buffer them from threats such as an infectious-disease outbreak or a devastating storm.

For example, given that most low-wage workers do not have paid sick leave, if they miss work due to their or a family member’s illness, they lose crucial income that could be the difference between being able to pay their rent or not. They also run the risk of being let go if they miss their shifts. If workers also lack adequate health insurance, they face the threat of crippling medical bills. Now what started as a simple illness has snowballed into a family financial disaster.