Pandemics offer hope too: Trustee Chair Ravindran


In a pandemic, nearly everyone is hit at once, which means we really have no one to turn to who does not need help himself. Hope fully, 2021 will see the sunset of this pandemic, said TRF Trustee Chair K R Ravindran, addressing the virtual zone institute titled The Odyssey.


Throughout history, plagues and diseases have ravaged humanity, but not all changes they have enforced are bad. History tells us that Periclean Athens was so severely weakened by a plague that it lost to Sparta in the 430 BC war. But this defeat brought Athenians a radical democracy, “in which the world saw power evolve to the vote of the ordinary citizens.”

The 14th-century pandemic killed at least a third of Europe’s population; but it also contributed to the end of feudalism. What we do today to stifle the Covid virus is nothing new: “protective masks, quarantines, isolation, and social distancing emerged in response to the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century.”

Likewise, the roots for contact tracing go back to the Spanish flu of 1918 which killed about 50 million people. “It was used for tracking the spread of syphilis among sex workers and their patrons,” he added. But the world always recovered quickly, and in 1919 a service-oriented entity was formed in the form of Rotary and spread rapidly around the world.

So today, in these depressed times, “for those of us who believe in a supreme being, know that he can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph and a victim into a victory,” said Ravindran.

While polio had been kicked out of Africa, “we still have Afghanistan and Pakistan to finish and children in over 40 countries have to be immunised in a routine fashion. Plus, Rotarians need to continue unabated surveillance in over 70 countries to ensure the virus is still not lurking around in some sewer. Thus, there is no respite from our fundraising for we need to make our goal of $50 million per year that will be matched 2:1 by the Gates Foundation up to 2023,” he said.


TRF’s speedy response

Enumerating the response of the Trustees to the havoc caused by the Covid pandemic, Ravindran said, “Our immediate reaction to the pandemic was excellent. We gave out nearly $30 million quickly, widely and impactfully to enable thousands of clubs around the world to reach out to people in need.”

In July and August 2020 alone, the grants authorised amounted to $48 million; “we funded 715 grants in these two months, as against 271 last year. We were able to negotiate with USAID and formulate a partnership where they gave us $5 million to provide assistance to Italian communities impacted by Covid-19.”


What next?

The Trustee Chair said the challenge Rotary faces in a post-Covid world is to expand and institutionalise the learnings of last year.

So how was the TRF leadership gearing up for the post-Covid world?

  • It is working and succeeding in reducing its recurring fixed administrative costs, “and getting sharper and leaner, while protecting and safeguarding our brand.”
  • It is realigning TRF services and image “to the changing public sentiment. A case in point was making environment our seventh area of focus because the younger generation places greater emphasis on purpose, passion and meaning.”
  • It is exploring alternative ways of strengthening its World Fund; actively looking for external partners as it did in USAID, launching Programmes of Scale “where we put in up to $2 million and expect other partners who rely on Rotarians on the ground to equally invest substantially in funds and resources.”
  • The Foundation has also decided to play a significant role in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, “especially in areas which might perpetuate insufficiency, inefficiency and ignorance.”


Ravindran said that since March 2020, many donors and other Foundation teams have been working around the clock, reshaping priorities and practices for the next era of giving. “We must take heart from the reaction of the charitable public to the pandemic. What’s striking was not only the scale of capital being committed by major philanthropists — at least $10.3 billion globally in May 2020, but also how it is being given at record speed, with fewer conditions, and in greater collaboration with others.”

So this is the world of goodness out there and Rotary is a microcosm of that world. But the challenge remained in “meeting our funding goals”. In normal circumstances, TRF had set an achievable goal for this year of $410 million. The break up being as follows:

  • $50 million for Polio (matched by a $100 million from Gates)
  • $135 million for the Annual Fund
  • $85 million for the Endowment fund
  • $40 million for other outright gifts.
  • All this adds up to a grand total of $410 million.


Apart from the annual challenge, TRF’s mid-term goal of having $2.025 billion in net assets and expectancies by 2025 remained intact. “When we reach $1 billion in net assets, the funds available on an annual basis for spending would be $40-50 million.”

He added, “So far thankfully we are on track, keeping up with the projections.”


World economy in a tailspin

But the pandemic had sent the world economy into one of the worst recessions in recent memory. The misery caused by it constrains governments from spending money on social services necessitated “by the high levels of unemployment, homelessness and poverty.”

This will create a dire need for the services of Rotary, which he was optimistic, “will thrive because in dozens of countries, we become the answer to the prayers of community members.” Such as parents with a seriously ill child who gets treatment at hospitals that Rotarians have built; of villagers who will escape serious renal ailments thanks to the safe drinking water Rotary projects provide; girls who won’t have to drop out of school at puberty thanks to the separate toilets Rotarians have built in their schools; or those who will escape death from cancer or devastation from malaria and other diseases thanks to Rotary.

Rotarians could give hope to thousands of such people because “of their boundless imagination, fierce ambition and uncompromising dedication even in this dark and gloomy year. Remember the night is darkest just before dawn breaks, so let’s have hope that this too will pass.”

Ravindran concluded with a famous scene from the Hollywood epic film Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’ Toole, who plays the title role tells Omar Sharif: “Nothing is written”, after he saves Qasim, the Arab soldier who falls off the camel in the dessert, and others want to leave behind saying his death was “written”.

Concluded Ravindran: “All we can know is that with every action and reaction, there is an opportunity — a chance to live our values, express our desires, and take action to improve the quality of our lives. Nothing is written… till we write it.”

It was up to Rotarians to take all that is great about Rotary and TRF, “and use it to build a better world — for this is our great moment of opportunity.”

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