Thursday, May 19, 2022
May 19, 2022

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Jayne: Philanthropy can be embarrassing

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

It is a good question. An important question. A question that speaks to who we are as a nation. And it will warrant a deep discussion once we get past the pandemic stage of the coronavirus outbreak.

“So, what’s your take on philanthropy now with all the philanthropists, communities and businesses stepping up to help those in need?,” a reader emailed. “Plus helping in the development of vaccines, ventilators, etc.?”

This likely was in response to previous columns, such as one last July under the headline “Private money and public policy.” And it is an important topic.

So, the long answer is that such philanthropy is great. It’s necessary. It is essential to helping us get through this crisis, with donors large and small contributing to the national effort. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week pledged $150 million to help fight the pandemic, adding it to $100 million already pledged. “The investments we’ve made, expertise we’ve built, and experience we’ve gained over the last two decades has prepared us for this moment,” the foundation’s CEO said.

That money will help support diagnoses and treatment as well as the development of a vaccine, benefitting the entire world.

Others have stepped up, as well. Locally, the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington raised about $4 million in three weeks from donors large and small to help mitigate the impact of the virus. And among those who are unable to provide financial contributions, there are countless stories of people sewing protective masks or donating supplies or working in their own way to make this crisis more manageable.

Yet, while such philanthropic efforts are laudable, there also is a short answer to the reader’s question: It is embarrassing.

Not embarrassing that people are generously giving to help their communities. But embarrassing that public policy is so often dictated by private money; that our federal government was not prepared and not competent enough to provide what was needed; that we, collectively, as a community and a nation, did not have the foresight or the desire to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Just moments after I read the email Friday morning, I looked up at the TV and saw actor Sean Penn. Apparently, Penn and an organization he founded, Community Organized Relief Effort, are working to provide free drive-in test sites for those showing coronavirus symptoms in Southern California. The logistics have not been defined, but he is hoping eventually for a nationwide program.

That is commendable. It also is embarrassing. It is embarrassing to think that the richest nation on earth needs an activist to take the lead months after the outbreak hit us, rather than having testing stations set up almost immediately. It is embarrassing that South Korea was providing widespread testing at the same time our president was saying, “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” And, “One day it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” And, “Everybody that needs a test gets a test.”

Instead, we need actors to try and set up a testing mechanism — the inevitable result of a country that has failed for decades to invest in public infrastructure. You know, because tax cuts for the wealthy have been deemed more important.

President Trump, for all of his raging incompetence, is merely a symptom of our disorder. It is a disorder in which far too many Americans believe that dismantling the administrative state is some sort of victory as they ignore its Pyrrhic reality. And now we are paying for it, with the sick unable to get tested for COVID-19 and with health care workers unable to get adequate supplies.

The point is not to decry the benevolence of philanthropists, whose contributions will keep people alive and help the nation recover and help develop a vaccine. They are to be celebrated for putting their wealth toward a greater good.

No, the point is to admit that we are dependent on their private acts only because we have failed at public policy.

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