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Donating and volunteering to help during Covid-19, explained

If you’re doing okay during the coronavirus crisis, here’s how to help those who aren’t.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

One of the main questions I get asked as a reporter writing about the social and political fallout from the coronavirus crisis is, “How can I help?”

It’s a natural question. As of this writing, over 115,000 people have died of coronavirus worldwide, including nearly 6,900 in New York City alone. The unemployment rate in the United States has already spiked to a level never seen during the worst of the Great Recession. Many Americans are slated to get $1,200 each in federal stimulus checks.

A lot of good donating and volunteering opportunities have cropped up in the wake of the crisis, and it’s beyond my abilities to survey and rank all of them. But there are a few that strike me as especially promising and easy for people in a position to volunteer or donate toward.

There are a few principles that I think are worth keeping in mind if you want to help right now. I’m writing this article for a section of Vox called Future Perfect, which is dedicated to figuring out how to do the most good. What that means in this context is the focus should be on helping the world’s poorest people, not just people in the US; if you want to give in the US, you should give to effective, direct charities; if you want to maximize your impact, donating to prevent the next pandemic might be your best bet; and don’t forget that the problems that plagued us before coronavirus still plague us now, and that other, non-Covid-19 charities need support, too.

Above all else, though, the biggest thing you can do to help is to obey social distancing/isolation protocols in your city or state, regularly wash your hands, and treat delivery workers and other essential staff with courtesy and respect.

Build up poor countries’ health systems

Americans have been getting an object lesson during this crisis in what it looks like when a health system doesn’t have enough capacity. Not only are too many Americans uninsured and unable to pay for health care right now, but they literally don’t have the necessary supplies. There aren’t enough masks, enough ventilators, even enough infectious disease doctors and nurses to handle a pandemic of this magnitude.

Now take those limitations and multiply them several times over, and you start to get a sense of the capacity problems facing developing countries like India or Nigeria, for example.

Building those health systems up to even the too-limited capacity of developed countries will take decades, and billions if not trillions of dollars of investment from their governments and aid agencies. But there are ways to donate that can improve the outlook of developing countries’ health systems, however slightly.

Benjamin Todd at the group 80,000 Hours, which provides charity and career advice to people trying to maximize their social impact, recommends giving to the Center for Global Development, an international think tank that does incredible work lobbying for improved domestic and aid policy on global health, among other issues. They’ve been doing particularly thoughtful work on coronavirus and how optimal response might differ in developing countries relative to developed ones.

Another group that’s promising in this area is the Global Health and Development charitable fund managed by Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder and executive director of the charity recommender GiveWell.

GiveWell mostly focuses on directly increasing the provision of health care interventions that prevent specific diseases (more about this in a second), but Hassenfeld and GiveWell set up a separate fund that also gives to higher-risk but potentially higher-reward charities working on improving government capacity in health care.

For instance, it supports the Innovation in Government Initiative, which “provides technical assistance to governments in low- and middle-income countries, to help them implement and scale evidence-based policies.”

Help build the safety net at home

The best domestic coronavirus-focused charity to donate to in the US, in my opinion, is GiveDirectly’s Covid-19 cash program. GiveDirectly has partnered with Propel, a company that works on benefit delivery to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps), to identify SNAP recipients and direct money to them.

Each household gets $1,000 as a one-time payment. As of this writing, GiveDirectly reports having helped 3,200 families, and given a total of $3.5 million. Google announced a $2 million gift (half from the company itself, half from CEO Sundar Pichai) to GiveDirectly’s efforts, meaning they’ll scale up even more soon.

You can also donate, and volunteer, closer to home. The National Coalition for the Homeless maintains a directory of local homeless shelters; homelessness is the closest thing in the US to the extreme poverty common in parts of the developing world, and it’s worth reaching out to your local shelter to see if they need in-person volunteers. Many won’t be interested in taking on new personnel given the increased risk of residents getting infected, but it’s worth asking.

Likewise, you can consult Feeding America’s list of food pantries to find one in your area. Remember, though: If you want to give, give cash, not food. It’s a lot more flexible for food banks and prevents them from having to deal with wasted food no one wants.

Finally, here’s an unorthodox idea: If you can program, get involved in one of Code for America’s volunteer “brigades.” Code for America (CFA) is a nonprofit that works with other nonprofits and state and local governments to improve the technological infrastructure around the safety net, so accessing safety net benefits is easier for people who are struggling.

That work is always important, spanning programs like SNAP to filing tax returns for the Earned Income Tax Credit, but it’s especially important right now — you’ve probably read about the problems many of the newly unemployed are having navigating rickety state websites to sign up for benefits — and CFA sometimes uses volunteers to help with coding problems.

Another idea: Some areas, like Maryland and the District of Columbia, are recruiting volunteers to help conduct drive-by coronavirus testing. The program is run through the Medical Reserve Corps program of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, a little-known but longstanding program for recruiting volunteers to assist medical professionals. If you have a car, this is a worthwhile opportunity to explore.

Finally, many areas are reporting blood shortages right now, and donating blood, especially if you are O-negative or otherwise have unusually versatile blood, can be helpful. (Note: the US currently bars many healthy people, in particular men who have sex with men, from donating blood, even during this unprecedented crisis.)

To be clear, I think donating directly to poor people in Africa through GiveDirectly is still a higher-impact choice than donating to poor Americans through GiveDirectly — and you can also donate to people affected by Covid-19 in Africa. This isn’t to minimize the suffering of Americans, especially in the midst of this economic catastrophe, but the fact remains that poverty in the US is nowhere near as extreme as it is in Africa — and the calamity in America might divert even more of the aid charity that usually goes to the world’s poorest to people suffering within our borders.

Donate to prevent the next pandemic

By far, the biggest impact one could make in a Covid-19-related area would be on research and investments that help prevent the next pandemic. Failing to invest sufficiently in preventing low-probability but high-impact events is what caused the current crisis in the first place, and spending on preventing future pandemics and other catastrophic events is probably the best philanthropic investment available in bang-for-the-buck terms.

Todd at 80,000 Hours has a good set of recommendations in this vein. The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins is perhaps the world’s leading research organization in policy around pandemics and other biological mass-casualty threats.

Another group like CHS worthy of support is the Nuclear Threat Initiative. As the name implies, NTI began as a group focused on threats from great power nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, but it quickly evolved and now also focuses on other mass-casualty threats, particularly biological threats. Beth Cameron, vice president of its global biological policy and programs, was in charge of global health security and biodefense at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration.

You may have seen news reports about a “playbook” for handling pandemics that the Obama administration gifted the Trump administration, only to be ignored; Cameron was a principal author of that manual. Her work and that of her colleagues is incredibly influential and high-impact, and especially given NTI’s varying priorities, donations meant to strengthen its capacity in that area, in particular, could do a lot of good.

The best reason not to donate to these groups is if you think their funding needs will be met by other sources. CHS has gotten over $38 million in total support from the Open Philanthropy Project, for instance, which is backed by the $11.6 billion fortune of donors Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz. Todd also recommends the Gates Foundation’s Covid-19 funds, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, who have about $101 billion in personal wealth on top of their foundation’s $47 billion endowment.

But you don’t have control over how the Gates’ donate their money; you do have control over how you donate your own money, and however much you have to give will likely be put to good use at a group like CHS or NTI.

Get directly involved in research

Todd and his colleague Arden Koehler have also started a database of career and volunteering opportunities in research for people interested in helping fight the pandemic. Some of the volunteer opportunities require a lot of skill. There is, for instance, a “COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge” asking AI researchers to use machine learning to generate new insights using a database of scholarly articles. Most people won’t be able to do that, but some other options on the 80,000 Hours list might be doable.

There are also opportunities to volunteer for studies testing the safety of vaccines and other treatments; here’s one based at Oxford that UK readers might find interesting. Perhaps the easiest way to help is through Folding @Home, which crowdsources computing power on volunteers’ computers to help molecule simulations for biomedical researchers. They have traditionally worked on topics like breast and kidney cancer, but have started working on Covid-19, too.

In the medium to longer term, there could soon be human “challenge studies” enrolling healthy young people without preexisting conditions to be exposed to coronavirus and test vaccines. That could be a high-impact way for volunteers to benefit research on the topic.

Don’t forget that other health needs exist now, too

Tens of thousands of people are dying of Covid-19; thousands if not millions more would have perished without the massive public health response currently being undertaken by governments around the world. It can be easy to focus on coronavirus to the exclusion of all other health problems the world faces.

That would be a mistake. If anything, the crowding that health systems around the world are facing at this time is making it more perilous than ever to catch a “normal” disease like those public health officials focused on before coronavirus.

That’s partly why I, personally, have chosen to continue to donate to GiveWell’s top charities, which focus on preventing malaria infection through bednets and preventative immunotherapy, saving lives through vitamin A supplementation, preventing worm infections that can harm children’s ability to learn and grow up healthy, and giving money directly to poor people in sub-Saharan Africa through GiveDirectly’s normal, non-Covid-19 operations.

The main reason I give to GiveWell is that I view donating to specific charities as creating a conflict of interest for me as a philanthropy reporter. Donating to GiveWell if you’re a philanthropy reporter is like putting your money in an index fund if you’re a business reporter: It insulates you from playing favorites by outsourcing your giving/investing to an outside body.

But a secondary reason why I’m happy to give to GiveWell is that it helps ensure worthwhile charities that aren’t currently dominating the news will be taken care of. Coronavirus has upended the world and we need to defeat it. But given that most of the world is focused on that virus, my dollar might go farther if donated to neglected causes, like malaria, that are nonetheless huge sources of suffering.

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