Looking Back: A Year Later, How Far Have We Come? The COVID Quebec Consortium’s Philanthropic Response
It’s been a year since the Fonds COVID Québec philanthropy initiative was created to tackle the unprecedented pandemic situation soon after it struck. It was launched by a consortium of private foundations in Québec comprising the Molson Foundation, Mirella & Lino Saputo Foundation, Trottier Family Foundation and Jarislowsky Foundation. The J.A. Bombardier and Echo foundations have also contributed to the Fund, which is managed by the Foundation of Greater Montréal (FGM) and coordinated with the support of Philanthropic Foundations Canada. Its goals are to curb the spread of COVID-19, support testing and vaccination, and protect the elderly and other people in Greater Montréal at higher risk of getting sick. Over the past year, the foundations have invested $10,500,000 in the pandemic response effort.
In April 2020, after consulting some 40 national and international experts in health and social development, the foundations concluded that emergency responses to the social and economic consequences of the pandemic were not enough, because those consequences were likely to worsen as coronavirus transmission increased. To overcome past epidemics, strong community-level participation has always been needed as a bridge between government actions and those taken individually by citizens. And yet, grassroots engagement, which is effective in limiting contagion and less costly than medical treatment, was largely under-used here as part of the response to COVID-19. The foundations, therefore, decided to focus on this key area.
Beginning in the first wave of the pandemic, crisis units comprising community, municipal and health stakeholders were formed in several Montréal neighbourhoods. It was observed that the impact of COVID-19 was substantially more severe in districts with higher poverty levels, greater ethnocultural diversity and greater numbers of frontline healthcare workers. In May 2020, the philanthropy consortium approached the crisis units in the most acutely affected neighbourhoods to map out local action plans to fight the pandemic.
In the summer of 2020, nine concerted local action plans were introduced. The key actions included multilingual initiatives to raise awareness of the health measures, mobilization of community leaders, support for testing, safe isolation of infected residents, and support for the elderly. To assist local community partners in implementing activities, the consortium secured the collaboration of the Red Cross and CoVivre, an outreach initiative of the McGill University Health Centre with resources specialized in communicating with vulnerable communities. In three months, some 110,000 citizens received direct-awareness messaging and support via the action plans.
Since that initial success, the number of action plans has grown to 26, extending from one end of the Island of Montréal to the other as well as to the adjacent cities of Laval and Longueuil. Close to 200 organizations are involved in implementing them. In the coming months, the focus of actions will be on the vaccination campaign, in partnership with Québec Public Health, with the goal of enabling thousands of people to access vaccines.
In addition to this local approach, the consortium has developed and financed several innovative projects in response to the pandemic. In Montréal-Nord, the urban district most affected by COVID-19, saline-gargle screening for the virus in workplace settings has demonstrated that a systematic approach to testing employees allows for early detection of outbreaks and in turn, helps contain them. The consortium is also funding Red Cross actions to support people with COVID-19 who are placed in isolation by providing them with food, cleaning products, protective equipment and even housing, to prevent contamination of family members. Another major project, underway in five Québec regions, involves analyzing wastewater for traces of COVID-19, which enables researchers to detect upticks in coronavirus cases before they are reflected in testing data, giving public health authorities a head start on predicting trends in the spread of the disease.
This collaborative model involving a strong coalition of philanthropic leaders working in concert with public authorities and community groups has proven its worth. In times of crisis, the philanthropic sector can bridge gaps in government response and be a source of innovation that can change the course of events.