Reflections from Hong Kong: Opportunity amidst the COVID-19 crisis for a reset in philanthropies and mindsets


Philo Alto


Although Asia’s initial outbreaks of COVID-19 overwhelmed parts of the region, many cities and countries quickly imposed strict measures that managed to dampen the virus spread – for now. As the coronavirus epicentre shifted west in the weeks since January, Asian localities began to battle a second surge mainly from imported cases coming back to the region. From Hong Kong, Alliance Editorial Advisory Board member Philo Alto reflects on how this global pandemic crisis has called for a reset in different ways.

What has struck me the most about the ongoing global pandemic is how in its speed, intensity, and impact, it has overwhelmed even the most far-reaching financial, political, and institutional responses thrown at it by countries and cities around the world thus far. As US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr Anthony Fauci stated in an interview, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.” Perhaps this renewed acknowledgment of the role of science in the understanding of our place in the natural world will become integral to our conversations post-COVID-19 about climate change as well.

With local institutional and political actions caught on the backfoot by a non-partisan global pandemic, philanthropies, private, public, and social sectors, and government leaders around the world have begun to recalibrate and coordinate their responses.

Resetting philanthropies. There is an urgent need for cross-sectoral and cross-national collaboration and knowledge exchange to battle this global pandemic – a whole of society approach at a global and regional levels, and in the local communities where individual human impacts are unfolding. For example, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Philanthropy for Better Cities (PBC) forum had recently convened a webinar on Philanthropic Leadership in the COVID-19 Crisis that included Dr. Rajiv Shah of the Rockefeller Foundation and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation as among the distinguished panellists. The webinar sought to build on the connections formed at the biennial PBC forum that began in 2016 to serve as a platform to exchange ideas with other philanthropies globally to identify learning and collaboration opportunities in tackling the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

In addition to tackling the immediate humanitarian and social needs, philanthropies in all their forms need to redouble their efforts for post-COVID-19 recovery amidst shifting societal expectations, informed by science and mindful of political and institutional contexts. With our collective sense of urgency, we probably have today the best chance to repurpose and reframe philanthropies toward landscape-wide systemic impacts. And at no time in recent history have the societal and human costs of doing nothing become so high that paradigm shifts are no longer just possible – but needed.

Repurposing capitalism. The perils of unfettered growth of capitalism and globalisation have arguably enabled the pandemic and laid bare their disproportionate impacts on the vulnerable and disenfranchised. With the pandemic showing limited signs of abating, going back to business-as-usual post-COVID-19 is no longer an option. And it is imperative for us to ponder and rethink the purpose of capitalism, its achievements and limitations, and its tendency to discount the natural world in the pursuit for financial returns. Jed Emerson has eloquently written on this topic in his book, The Purpose of Capital, which I reviewed in the June 2019 issue of Alliance.

Respecting the natural world and our stewardship obligation. The current pandemic shock is a wake-up call for all of us. We are involuntarily at the crossroads to reflect and decide how our actions both personally and professionally can make a difference to and bring hope for our collective futures.

While not downplaying the human tragedies and unprecedented challenges that are unfolding in many ways today, in the broader geological timeline this pandemic is but a short blip. All the while, climate change impacts from our economic activities that ignore the natural world continues to tip the planet past its ecological balance.

For philanthropies, the opportunity is open to embrace this new normal and catalyse a collective reset – as grounded by their mission and social compact, informed by science, and tempered by their compassion for the unfolding individual human tragedies beyond statistical data.

Philo Alto is the Founder of Asia Value Advisors in Hong Kong and a member of Alliance magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board.

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