Challenges and opportunities for Rotarians in a post-Covid world


Words cannot express the gratitude the Trustees feel for those of you who have so generously contributed to the Foundation. As Goethe said “Enough words have been exchanged; now at last let me see some deeds!” And the donors we recognise today have certainly acted on that principle.

Today our Endowment consists of $500.5 million in net assets and $838.3 million in commitments, for a combined total of $1.34 billion. Today we have 1,096 Arch Klumph Society members; 37,675 Major Donors and 1,765,280 Paul Harris Fellows. But as I face you today, let me dwell a bit on the elephant in the room. And when it’s there, you can’t pretend it isn’t and just discuss the ants.

At a meeting in Feb 2018 at the WHO headquarters, a group of scientists met to discuss and plan what they had warned and expected for decades: an unknown pathogen with no known treatment or cure that would likely originate in animals, jump to humans and start spreading silently and quickly. Scientists couldn’t predict the precise genetic makeup of the pathogen, or when it would strike. But they knew it would come and even picked locations where such a virus might originate. They had ideas about how it might begin infecting people and how easily transmissible it could be, and even plans on how to detect and stop it. But when the disease did come they found they were caught flat-footed.

As someone said, governments spend trillions of dollars to build vast militaries, track the movement of armies across the planet and practise wargames. And yet the world was unprepared to defend itself against a tiny microbe about one 10,000th the size of a full stop at the end of a sentence. Till now, over 46 million people have been infected and over 1.2 million have died around the world. When one dies of Covid, the death its often a lonely death, usually in a hospital, the victim saturated with fear, seeing only ghostly figures covered in a space suit with not a friendly face in sight. Grieving families have to further incur indignities — no proper funerals, hurried burials, barely a chance to mourn.

And there are also other costs. The equivalent of nearly 400 million jobs have been lost. IMF says global output will fall five per cent this year; far worse than during the financial crisis of 2008. The World Bank says 100 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty. The World Food Programme believes that a wave of hunger and famine threatens to sweep across the globe. UNICEF says 872 million students in 51 countries are unable to go to school and vaccination rates among children has dropped badly. And we see governments grappling with the difficult ­decision — should we shut down to keep people alive or should we stay open to keep the economy going? Either choice comes with drawbacks.


Covid vaccine

Finding a vaccine is the only answer to all these travails. But even if we do, the painful truth is that we are not returning to a pre-Covid-19 world, the recovery is a long way off and it isn’t likely to be smooth. When a vaccine emerges, making and administering billions of doses will take much of next year. Early vaccines may well need two shots, and complex cold chains to keep them fresh.  Medical glass could run short. Freighting these vaccines across the world in cold boxes will be a challenge. IATA estimates that we need 8,000 747 aircraft to deliver all the vaccines!

Life for us will certainly be ­different — at least for some time. When we are not mobile how can our members see the sickness left uncared for; how do we see the parched land which requires water; how do we notice bare classrooms without tables and benches? How do our cadre members visit project sites?  And how do our scholars thrive in an isolated environment when they don’t have a campus to go to?

Governments spend trillions of dollars to build vast militaries. Yet the world was unprepared to defend itself against a tiny microbe about one 10,000th the size of a full stop.

The new clubs that are being formed and the old clubs being lost are both happening in a virtual world not a real one. TRF’s response to Covid was swift and impactful. We awarded 319 Covid specific disaster response grants for $7.2 million. And we awarded 331 Covid global grants for proximately $21.7 million, making a total outflow of nearly $29.6 million in a matter of weeks. Many grants were processed and awarded in days. Our staff did a fabulous job.

In fact, the world over, the philanthropic response to the Covid pandemic has been phenomenal. At least $10.3 billion have been donated globally by May 2020. All this augurs well for Rotary which relies on ­philanthropic-minded people and entities to raise funds.



The flip side is that Rotarians themselves face unprecedented challenges. Many Rotarians have lost jobs, and some have even succumbed to the virus. We have all lost those who are near and dear. The income of many others remains slashed. The businesses of so many Rotarians have seen substantial drop in revenues and some are struggling to meet recurring costs. In this situation it’s a worry whether our membership numbers on the one hand and contributions to TRF on the other hand could suffer.

But history shows that Rotarians have always been resilient and able to withstand challenges that others might succumb to. They are visionaries; an idealistic lot that dream big; and dream of a better world. However, TRF trustees do have an onerous responsibility of steering our Foundation at this most challenging of times. Leadership ­matters the most, and is most challenged, when people face independent threats, when customary ways of working are no longer possible, and when confusion and anxiety overflow.

During crises, leaders must make tough choices so that their organisations can survive in the short term and thrive in the long one. And one of the tough decisions we made with great unhappiness was to eliminate for the moment the 50 per cent match TRF gave from its World Fund to cash contributions from clubs for next year. The problem is that our global grants have become so popular that we have now become victims of our own success. For example, in 2013–14 there were 868 grants worth $47 million; in 2018–19 there were 1,403 grants worth $86 million. So contributions increased by 10 per cent, whereas the global grants increased by 80 per cent.

Our expenditure on our GGs only in the months of July and August was $48 million, compared to a budget of $16 million and a comparison of $19 million for the corresponding months in the previous year. We funded 715 projects this year in these two months alone as against 271 last year for the same period. We were extraordinarily successful!

But there is a negative aspect to this. As each of you know you have to put money in the bank to draw it out! We have reached the point that the money Rotarians are putting in is not keeping pace with the money we are giving out to fund projects. Not surprising, since nearly 20 per cent of our clubs do not contribute to our Annual Fund.

I must compliment J B Kamdar of your club who is doing a great job in increasing contributions to our Annual Fund. These supporters of the Annual Fund are the ones who have the vision to see what others cannot — the problems, potential, promise and the purpose.

Apart from Annual Fund which drives our World Fund, you are the ones who can see that we have to raise enough money for Polio and be able to take advantage of the Gates match. It makes business sense when $1 of your DDF is matched by $1 from the World Fund and those $2 is doubled by the Gates Foundation to make a total of $6! And speaking of Polio, you are the ones who can play a significant role in the distribution of Covid vaccines when it is time to do so.

In fact, just last week the London Times commented that by working together and learning from the successful polio vaccination by Rotary International and others, we can consign other deadly diseases, including coronavirus, to the history books and save many more millions of lives. The polio infrastructure Rotary helped build is being used to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 by supporting preparedness and response activities in many countries, just as it did in the past to respond to outbreaks of Ebola, yellow fever and the avian flu.

So you see the nature of the business we do has not changed. We are still   reaching out to people in distress, except that our methodology needs to change. Our process of preparing and delivering the project needs to change.

The way we communicate what we do, needs to change.

I ask you to be hopeful, and remind you to not forget, that we will be measured on our ability to handle the current adversity and uncertainty. We have a responsibility to provide the inspired leadership our members yearn for, to serve as a lighthouse for our Foundation, when the fog of life seems to leave you wandering in circles, and demonstrate in action our support for our Foundation in a tangible manner.

Also, the responsibility to vindicate the figure that Johns Hopkins University put on the value of work done by Rotarians in terms of volunteer hours spent — $850 million per annum. If we have faith in God and step out boldly, we will succeed.

Excerpts from the speech delivered by the Trustee Chair at a webinar hosted by the Rotary Club of Madras.

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