Bioethics Forum Essay

Crowdfunding for Covid-Related Needs: Unfair and Inadequate

Crowdfunding is a response to personal and social crises. Not surprisingly, many individuals and organizations are turning to crowdfunding to help to those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan has stated that one-third of all new campaigns in the United States are for COVID-19-related needs, amounting to tens of thousands of campaigns. These campaigns have already received over $60 million in donations. While this is, in most respects, an understandable and admirable response to a global emergency, crowdfunding also shows where we have failed as a society. It is a makeshift response to institutional failures and not a fair or sustainable solution to crises.

In its own guidance on COVID-19-related crowdfunding, GoFundMe suggests starting campaigns to help with living expenses for people without sick leave from work, provide low-income people with food and water supplies, and pay for testing and treatment for people who may be infected but lack adequate medical insurance. News stories are proliferating about crowdfunding campaigns aimed at helping affected groups, including professional athletes starting campaigns for employees impacted by the suspension of sports leagues and musicians starting campaigns for out-of-work road crews. GoFundMe has set up a page highlighting a slate of coronavirus-related campaigns, targeting people suddenly unemployed due to physical distancing efforts and food banks in hard hit communities.

On social media, many individuals are appealing for help for themselves and their loved ones. These campaigns have been joined by a range of celebrities seeking to use their visibility to encourage giving by their fans and followers. One of the most prominent, a campaign to raise money to pay for personal protective equipment for frontline responders, has raised $4.7 million of their $10 million dollar goal. In other cases, more modest and localized needs like a food kitchen in Philadelphia have received  support.

Supporting the needs of those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, through crowdfunding or other means, is a praiseworthy act of solidarity with the most vulnerable among us. However, there are two important respects in which we should view these actions as a deeply imperfect means of addressing systemic rot rather than simply an example of people coming together to meet one another’s needs.

First, while crowdfunding can help vulnerable people harmed by the coronavirus and other emergencies, it doesn’t do so in a fair or highly effective way. Campaigns by professional athletes to help stadium staff put out of work by the cancelation of sporting events are a good example of this. While these employees often work in precarious positions with few benefits and for a minimum wage, they are only being helped in this instance by the happenstance of being associated with prominent and charismatic benefactors. Helping precariously employed and poorly compensated workers in this way leaves out the restaurant workers, janitors, and daycare employees who are also in need but lack the good luck to work in proximity to the wealthy and famous. Thus, crowdfunding can take the form of distribution according to popularity rather than need.

Second, these campaigns do nothing to address the failures of our institutions to meet our basic needs. Crowdfunding is a Band-Aid solution that can help to staunch the bleeding of some individuals in an emergency but does nothing to address the root causes of these needs. This is a point that GoFundMe’s former CEO, Rob Solomon, noted when he suggested that crowdfunding “shouldn’t be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems. They should be solved by the government working properly, and by health care companies working with their constituents.” With GoFundMe’s very large and active role in the COVID-19 pandemic, notably, GoFundMe is seemingly beginning to view itself as part of the solution to gaps in the social safety net along with government aid. In a recent interview, GoFundMe’s current CEO, Tim Cadogan, stated that “We are by no means the only solution. We all hope that there’s going to be some more government aid. But we have a role and, you know, it’s sort of our duty to do everything we possibly can to use our platform.” Noting the limitations of crowdfunding as a solution to these problems is important, but in itself this simply leaves us to repeat a pattern of giving without addressing why this giving is needed in the first place.

President Trump and other leaders have called the COVID-19 pandemic an “unforeseen problem.” This is to some extent true given the rapidity of the virus’s spread and ubiquity of global restrictions on movement instituted in response. But pandemics are not new, and this is likely not the last one we will see this century. And we will continue to see other disasters, both natural and human-caused, ranging form earthquakes and forest fires to the consequences of climate change.

The recently passed pandemic aid bill in the U.S. includes a one-time direct financial benefit based on income, temporary extension of unemployment benefits, temporary relief of student loan payments, and emergency aid to hospitals, universities, and small businesses. These are helpful and important steps to address the impacts of the pandemic. However, as with crowdfunding campaigns, they largely take the form of addressing symptoms of a weak and inadequate social support system rather than enhancing the system itself.

Systemic failures to protect the most vulnerable among us are also not new and they are revealed again and again. By all means, donate to a crowdfunding initiative or other charitable group to help those most impacted by the coronavirus. If you choose to do so, try to do so fairly by helping those with the quietest voices and least visibility – donations to local food pantries are one fair way of doing so. But we should also use our voices and votes to advocate for systemic changes to make crowdfunding less necessary when the next emergency rolls around. Universal insurance coverage, permanently expanded paid sick leave, affordable child care, and other social supports won’t prevent pandemics from happening. However, they can lessen their harms for everyone and not just the fortunate few able to catch the public’s attention.

Jeremy Snyder is a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. Twitter: @jeremycsnyder

For additional information and ethics resources on the Coronavirus, please visit our COVID-19 Ethics Resources page:

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