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“Seattle isn’t just our headquarters. It’s our home”: A conversation with Amy Carter about BMGF's local response to a global pandemic

On March 4, the Gates Foundation committed $5 million to help the Seattle area respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Director of Community Engagement, Amy Carter has helped direct the foundation’s giving in the community that’s home to its headquarters.

1. Seattle is one of the centers of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. The Gates Foundation is familiar with health crises in other parts of the world, but today we’re facing a fast-moving pandemic in our own backyard. Can you talk a little bit about how the foundation is operating right now?  

Seattle isn’t just our headquarters. It’s also our home. Bill and Melinda live here along with hundreds of our colleagues, their families, and loved ones. We’re a global health organization, so we have the expertise to help tackle health crises in many parts of the world, but we also have an obligation to help in our own community.

As the world’s largest private foundation, we can deploy a lot of money quickly in a way other organizations can’t. At the same time, our foundation employs incredibly knowledgeable professionals in the public health field—former leaders at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

So, we’re taking a two-pronged approach by deploying both our dollarsand our expertiseas quickly as possible.

2. What do those moves look like?

Well, we’re leaning on the expertise of national and international public health professionals in our network to help state and county public health services respond. We’re working like a recruitment network, connecting experts with government officials and local health agencies, like Public Health Seattle & King County.

Those experts are helping state and local officials think through the kinds of questions that get asked during a pandemic like: When do we close schools? When should employers implement work-from-home policies? What are effective ways to practice social distancing?

No one in the United States has dealt with a pandemic like this in 100 years, so it’s good to consult with other experts.

3. What is the foundation doing to support Seattle’s community directly?

The first thing we’re doing is helping to strengthen the ability of Public HealthSeattle & King County to disseminate critical messages about safety and hygiene, like the importance of hand-washing and social distancing. Seattle has a large and diverse population, which includes communities from many cultures and countries, and we want to make sure the most vital information is being translated into multiple languages and shared with everybody who lives here.

We’re also working withand helping fund, a few local funds and homeless service providers. The goal is to help people who are feeling the effects of this pandemic disproportionatelyimmigrants, refugees, people experiencing homelessness, and families who may have gone from low-income to no-income because of social restrictions and closures.

4. Can you talk a little bit why these groups are more vulnerable right now, and what needs to be done to help?

Well, I think it’s important to understand that during times like this, the typical safety nets and services that help vulnerable populations have come under strain.

For example, food banks are seeing an increase in the people who need their services, but there’s less food available at the supermarkets, and people who might normally donate are keeping their food at home. In addition, food banks have extra cleaning and hygiene responsibilities, which takes up extra time and resources.

Restocking local food banks is an extremely important way that people can help during this crisis, both for individuals who may be able to provide support and for offices that may have non-perishable foods in their workplaces that aren’t being used while their employees are working from home.

We also have to think about shelters and other providers that serve the homeless. What these organizations need most right now, in additional to financial support, are food donations, cleaning supplies, soap, sanitizer, and other hygiene items. They also need access to places like motel rooms, which would let them expand their capacity to house people in a way that complies with social distancing practices.

We also hear that first responders and health care workers are having trouble finding childcare while schools are closed.

The schools themselves need some help too. While they’re still providing breakfast and lunch on weekdays to students who qualify, they need help getting the word out about where the pick-up sites are and whether there’s delivery.

Some people have taken it on themselves to do this. My husband recently saw a sign posted at a bus stop, letting people know that a nearby middle school had food. The sign was handwritten.

There are so many people working hard to address this outbreak, at every level, from individuals to communities to governments, and I’m proud to say that our foundation also has all handswell, all washed hands—on deck.

About the Interviewee

Amy Carter, Director of Community Engagement
Amy Carter is the Director of Community Engagement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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