Social enterprises respond to community needs amid COVID-19

by Helen Harvey / April 2020

Last week we reflected on systemic and structural responses that are supporting the social enterprise sector in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. These structural responses often rely on the ingenuity, creativity, and hard work of frontline social enterprise organisations and leaders who advocate for the sector and frequently inform the delivery of these response funds and campaigns. These are the same organisations and leaders that are collectively responding to this crisis by serving the needs of the most vulnerable and most affected in our communities.

Across the SEWF network, there are numerous examples of social enterprises around the world stepping up to address and mitigate the impact of coronavirus. Some are scaling up with the assistance of their talented and committed staff and volunteer teams to deliver critical public services, while others are changing what they deliver or using innovative approaches to still serve the community.

In the food service and hospitality industry, social enterprises are working to keep supply chains intact, providing additional sources of income for local farmers, while providing meals to those that need them most. DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) is a social enterprise in the United States that scaled up their meal distribution efforts in March to meet increased demand for meals across Washington, DC. In their first two weeks of COVID-19 response, they provided over 80,000 meals to children experiencing hunger in the face of school closures and to partner agencies and shelters expanding their services. In addition to meal distribution, DCCK made their healthy corners food product even more affordable while supporting mutual aid networks and providing fresh produce bags for individuals who need extra support. Similarly, a newly formed social enterprise in South Africa called FoodFlow is providing families experiencing food insecurity with bags of fresh produce and groceries from local farms and suppliers.

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Beyond protecting health and wellbeing by tackling food insecurity, many social enterprises are directly supporting the healthcare industry. Some like Biji-Biji, an up-cycling and community arts social enterprise in Malaysia, are staying true to their missions and core activities while developing a new service to response to COVID-19 specific needs. Recognising the shortage of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, Biji-Biji is currently up-cycling unused and unwanted materials that can be used to create needed PPE. Just north in Thailand, the social enterprise Opendream created a streamlined application called Sabaidee that focuses on anonymous participatory symptom reporting for the general public and person under investigation (PUI) management for hospitals. Their service will help public health officials better estimate the scope of the outbreak and fight the spread.

After this fight is ‘over’ and after lockdowns and quarantines are called off, social enterprises will still be on the frontlines fighting for society’s most marginalised and vulnerable. Even when the direct effects of the pandemic have subsided, the societal inequities that are currently being exacerbated as indirect effects of COVID-19, like food insecurity, homelessness, or educational inequality, will remain. In the face of that reality, social enterprises across all industries will continue to sustainably provide for our communities in ways they always have been. As they continue to work toward creating a more just and equitable society, it will be time for us all to rethink how our economy works and embrace social enterprises as they pave the way for a new global impact economy.

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Helen Harvey is SEWF's Event Director