Q&A: The best antidote to COVID-19? A collective approach

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Skoll Foundation CEO Don Gips. Photo by: Skoll Foundation

Collaboration and coordination are the only way to overcome COVID-19, says Don Gips, CEO at the Skoll Foundation, a private foundation working to drive social change through innovation and social entrepreneurship.

“I think that it's going to take a truly collaborative approach and listening to different voices than we've listened to before, bringing them into the conversation and then helping to do the right work, hoping policies can be changed around the world to address those,” he said. “[COVID-19] will go wherever it sees weakness and that type of coordinated response is the only way to put an end to the pandemic.”

Having already committed to doubling its grant funding in 2020 at the start of the outbreak, the Skoll Foundation announced in April that it expected to double that again following a $100 million gift from founder Jeff Skoll. Much of the first wave of funding went toward strengthening health systems in Africa, expecting that the health systems would struggle to sustain the pandemic.

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“At that point, we were most concerned about Africa,” Gips said. “But it quickly became clear this was a global challenge and that it was going to take both a sprint to address some of the immediate challenges, but also a marathon to try and think through the longer-term.”

Speaking to Devex, Gips explained how the foundation’s COVID-19 response has since evolved, why partnerships have been central to that, and the lasting impact he hopes to see.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has the Skoll Foundation’s response to COVID-19 been since the increased funding announcement your organization made? 

Our response really is built on over a decade of Jeff's commitment to fighting pandemics, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and through the work with Participant — which funded the movie “Contagion” to try and warn the world about this type of pandemic and then created an organization called Ending Pandemics. Through the network that Jeff created around the world addressing pandemics, he saw it coming and immediately came to us and gave us the funds.

We've really been on a global journey of trying to figure out where we can make a difference, both on the medical and public health side of the pandemic, but also the economic and social ripple effects on some of the most vulnerable. Wherever we work to invest, we try to figure out a way to do that to address the short-term need while looking at the long-term rebuilding.

Unfortunately, we didn't think we'd have to focus as much in the United States, but we also had to spend a fair bit of time trying to think about how to help out here in the state of California where we work with both Governor [Gavin] Newsom and Mayor [Eric] Garcetti's teams. Also, importantly, with the lack of a coordinated federal response, we've been trying to partner with the National Governors Association in a number of ways to figure out how can we develop a national response here that enables the governors, who are really the CEOs, in each of these efforts to fight the disease, to get the best information available for them to respond and access things like tests.

You invested early in the Africa CDC. What influenced that decision and some of the other funding you’ve made in the region? 

We were very concerned about how Africa's health care systems would be able to respond if COVID were to become widespread and found an amazing partner in the Africa CDC, which had the backing of all the African heads of state, has been able to set standards, and help create a continentwide response.

Early on in the response, Africa was having a huge challenge getting tests, personal protective equipment, and breathing assist devices. They, along with Strive Masiyiwa [Zimbabwean billionaire businessman and philanthropist] and others, helped create the Africa Medical Supplies Platform that would bring together the buying power of the whole continent to be able to purchase supplies. It just became an example of the benefits of a coordinated response.

We've been working with them ever since to help make sure that all the investments are aligning, and bringing in some of our traditional social entrepreneurs to support that last mile and the community health worker, making sure that there are coordinated developments happening at the continent-wide level, national level, and on a local level.

What do you think the lasting impact of such responses will be?  

If you think about something like the Africa CDC or another project we're investing in to help build out an oxygen infrastructure in Africa, the goal is to leave behind health systems that are stronger and strengthened and able to deal with not just the next pandemic, but all the other diseases that are ravaging Africa and other parts of the world.

In all of our investments, we want to invest in things to deal with the immediate crisis but put in place the longer-term infrastructure to really help sustain health around the world. Similarly, when we're looking at interventions around what's happening on the economic side for some of the most vulnerable populations, wherever we can, we're targeting interventions that will help rebuild those communities in a more inclusive way.

What lessons has the Skoll Foundation learned from this time that it might take forward? 

We were in the middle of our strategy review about how we work with what we call systems orchestrators; people who are able to work across the system and work with governments and the private sector. I think we've seen that borne out with players like Africa CDC or even the National Governors Association, who can coordinate all those efforts. That's one.

Two is speed of decision-making. The pandemic has morphed so quickly that means if you're running a long, detailed diligence process, by the time you're ready to make the grant the situation has already changed. Part of being fast is working in coordination with others so that you're drawing on that local knowledge and expertise, so you know you're investing in people who are approximate to the problem and understand where the issue sits. They know the communities they're trying to address and you can work off of the work they're already doing rather than trying to create something new.

Probably the biggest lesson — which I think we already realized but the pandemic further highlighted — is the inequities in society around the world. Some of the most vulnerable are suffering the most from this and hopefully, this will offer all of us an opportunity to rebuild some of these systems — whether they're health systems or economic systems — in a more just and inclusive way. I think the challenge over the next few years is figuring out how do we do that and how do we find the right partners in government, the private sector, and civil … to be a catalyst for that.

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