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COVID-19: A test of community

Photographer: Annie O'Neill community, Coronavirus, COVID-19, health care
Woman with a stethoscope is tending to a young girl in an asthma clinic.

Many in our community and the social sector nationally are wrestling with how to respond to COVID-19. The Heinz Endowments is no exception. We have been carefully monitoring recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the Allegheny County Health Department, speaking with health experts, engaging in conversations with local and national colleagues, and generally working to better understand the implications of this moment for our community, mission, staff, and the organizations we support. That process is ongoing, but I do want to share some of our thinking so far. 

A moment like this can rob us of our sense of agency and power. However, I would argue that the path forward is to realize that we do have power, even in the face of something that makes us feel incredibly small, and that it lies where it always has—in remembering that we are in this thing together and in finding ways to embrace our collective responsibility and accountability to each other. This is one truth of which I am absolutely certain: We will emerge stronger and better from the challenges of this time to the extent we remember what it truly means to be members of a local, national and global community.

For our grantees and front-line workers, thank you for the incredible work you do every day to advance the well-being of our community. It is needed now more than ever. We understand that you are facing unprecedented challenges brought on not only by the virus but by market declines, economic turmoil, and the impact those may have on your earned and contributed revenue. At this point, we and several other foundations—Richard King Mellon, Hillman Foundation, and The Pittsburgh Foundation—are collaborating with the United Way and other local intermediaries to better understand what the implications of the effects are likely to be. We are monitoring this situation closely and will be adjusting our response as the situation develops and we learn more.

As a precautionary measure for everyone involved and mindful of the care and vigilance required in responding to the virus, the Endowments, like many organizations and institutions, has suspended meetings in its offices and is minimizing participation in in-person meetings, gatherings and public convenings that might aid transmission of the virus. We fully expect that you will have to do the same if you have not already done so. 

With that in mind, if a component of your grant from us includes a conference, convening or other gathering that would not be prudent given the current concerns, please be aware that we absolutely support and encourage any decision to postpone that element of your grant to a later date as you deem fit. We will not expect you to meet the original deadline nor to do anything that you feel puts you or anyone else at risk. The same is true of any deadline that you cannot meet because of disruptions to your schedule and capacity in light of this situation. Your guiding principle with respect to our funding right now should be to attend first and foremost to the well-being of your team and the constituents you serve. 

Please also be aware that, effective immediately, our staff will be working remotely. While health officials are not yet advising employers here to implement a work-from-home policy, I have decided to launch ours now. Infectious disease experts are unequivocal that so-called social distancing—avoiding shaking hands, not standing in close proximity, not gathering in large groups, and minimizing general social mixing—is, alongside hygiene practices, one of the most effective ways for the pace of the disease’s expansion to be slowed. It is a form of self-protection, yes, but also protection for the broader community; by reducing opportunities for someone to pass something along to us, we reduce the likelihood that we will pass something along to others. Since we have the capacity to make that choice in our work, I believe we have a responsibility to make it.

The effect of this transition should be largely invisible and seamless for the organizations we support. All normal operations of the foundation are continuing. You may contact Endowments’ staff by email and phone, and we will get back to you as quickly as possible, backed by my full expectation that our team will be responsive and available in a timely fashion. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions and concerns. 

For our civic leaders, especially our public officials in county and city government, those representing us and pushing for sensible action in Harrisburg and Washington, and most particularly everyone at the Allegheny County Health Department, thank you for your steady leadership and broad community-mindedness during this challenging time. If we are being reminded of nothing else right now, it is the critical importance of responsible, functional government and of scientific and medical expertise in public decision-making. As many of us have discussed directly, a host of philanthropic, corporate and community leaders stand ready to collaborate, in the best Pittsburgh fashion, on a response that serves the whole of our community, including, and most especially, the most vulnerable among us.

For all of us in this community, that means remaining mindful of unintended consequences and “ripple effects” that might seem minor to those in positions of privilege and power but that can swamp the daily lives of people who are already struggling. If schools must be closed, for example, let’s not forget that tens of thousands of our children in Allegheny County rely on schools for their breakfast and lunch, often the only meals of their day. Obviously, we must do whatever is necessary to protect public health, but let’s also feed the children, protect low-wage workers, and remain mindful of how many people in our society still have no health insurance. 

Similarly, this is a time to be especially vigilant on behalf of those among us who are subject to demonization. Crises bring out both the best in the human spirit and the worst, which is manifested in judgment, finger-pointing, shaming, racism and xenophobia. Not only will those bleak instincts, far too much on overt display in recent years, not help us now, they will actively harm us. Let’s make decisions, individually and collectively, that are rooted not in ugly racial and ethnic fears but in science and medicine. 

Let’s also think about what we can do to support those who are working to keep us safe and strengthen community right now. To our many friends in healthcare, thank you. Thank you for your training, expertise, competence and courage. And let’s also remember the role that nonprofits play in bringing this community together and holding it accountable to be a true home for all of us. Organizations in the social sector, be they in the human services or the arts, could be facing a perfect storm of heightened demands for services and dramatically diminished resources. We, everyone in Pittsburgh who has the capacity to support nonprofits through our time, talent and treasure, are the frontline against the loss of those essential services and resources. Let’s please give generously.  

It is important for us all to remember that this moment will pass. Those of us who have been around a while know that. What will define us when that moment comes is how we respond between now and then. If there is a bright side to the challenges we face right now, it is that it provides an opportunity for a reset. We are being given the chance and the occasion to reacquaint ourselves once again with the importance of acting in the common good, of exercising shared responsibility, of remaining accountable not just to ourselves but to each other and to the society of which we are a part. It is the best of the human spirit we are being called upon to model.

That, very simply, is the power we have to meet a moment like this, and it is immense. As Lau Tzu wrote, “From caring comes courage.” The courage we need comes from knowing we are standing together, as one community and one people. What we will be proud of one day is how well we did that and how well we learned from the experience. 

Where to begin? Simple: Let’s look out for each other, check on our neighbors and friends, support small businesses that are struggling, support good government, defend scientific expertise, fight racism, demand justice.

And, yes, please, wash your hands. 

Written by:

Grant Oliphant