By Phyllis Brown
NANJING, China — On March 19th, mainland China saw zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 for the first time since state media began coverage of the virus in late December 2019. More recently, the country rejoiced as Wuhan, the virus’ initial epicenter, concluded its 76-day lockdown on April 8th.
With community spread successfully contained, China’s social organizations (foundations, social enterprises, volunteer groups, social work agencies and nonprofits) entered into a period of reflection. Looking back on the sectors’ activities since January, how can social organizations develop effective responses to economic disruption? How significant were their contributions towards the management of COVID-19? How did state-society cooperation fare? Most of all, how does the sector’s recent response compare to previous crises?
To this end, opinion remains divided. No doubt, social organizations helped to address service gaps that stemmed from successive lockdowns. In the face of overcrowded hospitals, the NCP nCov Life Support Network launched, allowing 400 volunteer healthcare professionals to provide virtual medical consultations, grief counselling and social support to thousands of residents. By January 25th, a volunteer foundation in Hubei Province’s Xiaogan city established an impressive 91 contact points within the province to distribute medical supplies. These volunteer-run platforms for resource procurement and distribution take on an international dimension as Chinese organizations receive — and later donate — medical supplies overseas. Beyond Hubei, volunteer associations mobilised residents to enforce lockdown regulations and see to community needs. Fei Xiaojing, co-founder of Impact Hub Shanghai, observed that these social initiatives were predominantly ground-up in nature, citing instances of WeChat support groups for pregnant women and the elderly.
即使行业内部的意见存在分歧，毋庸置疑，社会组织在疫情造成服务缺口的局面下作出了巨大贡献。面对医院人满为患的情况，NCP新冠生命支援网络的设置促使400名志愿医疗专业人员为数千名居民提供医疗咨询、哀伤辅导和关怀服务。1月25日后，湖北的孝感义工联合会展现出令人赞叹的效率，在全省一共召集了91个联络机构来分发医疗用品。这些由志愿者运营的资源采购和分配平台具有一定的国际性，因为它们作为国内组织从海外接收医疗用品并随后将其捐赠。在湖北之外，各区的志愿者协会动员居民执行禁闭条例，并关照社区需求。影响力工厂（Impact Hub 上海）联合创始人费晓静指出，这些社会动态具有自下而上的性质，当中也包括各别专门帮助孕妇与老年人的微信群。
Despite these displays of initiative, others maintain that the sector’s overall performance fell below expectations, in terms of both scale and substance. For one, organizational participation was low — philanthropic researcher Yan Jiawei estimated that just 10% of Shanghai’s 17,000 social organizations were involved in COVID-19 efforts. Hao Nan, NCP’s founder and a key philanthropist since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, added that for most long-standing, formal social organizations, service delivery was conducted no more professionally than the volunteer networks that formed spontaneously during the epidemic. Volunteers even appeared to harness technology more constructively and creatively than the formalized social organizations.
There are those who also feel that coordination within social organizations could be improved. According to Hao, foundations mostly remained in the “upstream” segment of the fight against COVID-19, namely by approving grants and disbursing funds to “downstream” front-liners including hospitals and social workers. Without in-house capabilities to evaluate the needs of affected areas, many foundations effectively approved grants and projects with a limited understanding of what front-liners needed. In fact, Hao further contends that contributions from China’s foundations were generally too little and too late – out of billions of RMB in public donations, foundations only accounted for “millions” in funding.
As for the sector’s partnerships with local governments, Wang Jun, deputy secretary-general of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, remarked that joint efforts between state and society to combat COVID-19 were “not as smooth” as what transpired following the 2013 Ya’an earthquake in Sichuan Province. This time, social organizations mainly relied on their existing networks to make an impact. Hao finds this problematic. By failing to organize themselves to collectively engage authorities and medical equipment suppliers, social organizations are less able to outline concerns over crisis management and resource procurement respectively.
However, the sector’s performance should also be judged based on the circumstances surrounding the sector’s operating environment, in addition to the fact that COVID-19 is wholly unlike previous humanitarian emergencies in China.
First and foremost, engagement works both ways — as lockdowns were successively imposed, local governments barely made any institutional arrangements for social organizations to get involved. When Shanghai came under lockdown, authorities issued documents permitting workers in essential businesses to leave their homes. However, neither similar provisions, nor general support measures，were extended to social organizations.
It did not help that much uncertainty surrounded the nature of COVID-19, with experts only confirming human-to-human transmission on January 20. Answers as to how long the virus stayed on surfaces and how it transmits, amongst other details, came much later. Although the Chinese Association of Social Workers released guidelines to help social workers better support epidemic prevention, few social organizations possessed the technical expertise to contribute in the initial weeks of the outbreak, or to confidently do so without risking public health. After all, the social sector’s experience in relief work appears, till now, rather limited to natural disasters at home and abroad — the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which claimed 78,000 lives, was widely regarded as the catalyst for the development of Chinese philanthropy to begin with. That year, charity donations tripled and 13 million volunteered.
Clearly, such large-scale mobilization cannot and should not be replicated amidst an epidemic, but the limited mobility of social organizations has its costs. It reduces governments’ abilities to mitigate the unintended effects of yidaoqie (undifferentiated; literally “one knife cuts all”) lockdown policies on vulnerable communities. In China’s case, a HIV-positive man had to make a desperate appeal on Weibo for his medication. In another case, a child with disabilities died alone after authorities moved the boy’s caregivers to a quarantine facility.
Perhaps China’s experience with COVID-19 helps to make the case for governments to designate roles for the social sector at various stages of national crises, or to grant social organizations a seat in every crisis task force. Spurned by a series of charity-related scandals that eroded public trust in social organizations — the most notorious being the Guo Meimei incident of 2011 — recent policy developments have already allowed China’s government to exercise greater oversight over philanthropic activities. Observers argue that the effects of these new laws have been mixed.
However, as Hao and leaders of several foundations imply, China’s social sector is not without agency. To be taken seriously by the state, the sector ought to carve out a role for itself. Initiative, professionalization and capacity-building are thus essential. For example, Fei posits that social organizations can move to address the mental health needs of a nation emerging from lockdown. Some are already doing so. Indeed, as China grapples with economic recovery and the psycho-social effects of an epidemic, there is still work to be done.
Phyllis Brown is reporting from Singapore.