COVID-19, divisive leadership, mass unemployment, economic and social injustices, civil unrest—they all culminated into an uncertain, fearful year. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted overall inefficiencies in our institutions, but also the systemic inequities that disadvantage Black and brown communities.
We were warned that a plague was coming, but we, as a nation, failed to plan accordingly as our for-profit driven health care system deprioritized sufficient implementation of solution-based protocols.
The coronavirus pandemic hit hospitals and health care providers hard. Doctors and nurses, facing severe shortages of PPE, were unprotected against a lethal microscopic enemy. It became clear as COVID-19 cases increased that hospitals, overloaded with critical care patients, were on the brink of collapse. With no vaccine in sight, adequate testing or contact tracing capabilities, Americans were mandated to shelter in place. Subsequently, our consumer-driven economy that depends on the social exchange of goods and services to fuel the engine was brought to its knees. Americans faced near Depression era unemployment rates and lost access to health care insurance that was tied to their jobs. They struggled to keep their businesses open in a “new normal” and isolated world.
Millions of Americans could not pay their bills, put food on the table and faced evictions. Many still have no income. Our world, forced to shut down, was thrown into a deep recession. With 80 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the demand for the government to step in and support working families was critical. Congress provided checks to Americans; unemployment insurance kicked in, but it was still not nearly enough to cover the enormity and gravity of the situation.
An estimated 30 million Americans have faced some form of food insecurity since the pandemic struck the country in March, according to Bloomberg. It is no surprise that this unprecedented economic strain and uncertainty would cause a surge in demand for resources and assistance. The government left gaps in the supply and support chain and nonprofits stepped in to help meet these increasing demands. For the first time since the Great Depression, millions of Americans waited in drivethrough food distribution lanes for hours to collect their nourishment for the week.
It became clear that to address COVID-19’s dire effects, collaboration among elected officials, grassroots group leaders and nonprofit organizations was paramount. Nonprofit workers and volunteers joined the frontline workers and became a lifeline for vulnerable communities.
And so emerged global humanitarian nonprofits like Zakat Foundation of America to address these unprecedented demands. Headquartered in Illinois, with locations throughout the U.S. and abroad, Zakat Foundation was among the first nonprofits to step up and provide assistance, especially to our most vulnerable 3.5 percent—the undocumented community. Many of those undocumented workers were ineligible to receive governmental support.
While most nonprofits rely on the majority of their funding from grants, Zakat Foundation receives its funding from individual donors. U.S. donors give more than $44 billion a year to help impoverished communities around the world, according to Philanthropy Roundtable. Most donations come from middleclass people while religious faith motivates more Americans to give than any other factor, according to the Roundtable. Zakat means “obligatory alms,” or “alms upon wealth,” and it stands as the third pillar of Islam. Every Muslim possessing the designated minimal amount of wealth must, as a matter of worship, satisfy the duty of paying zakat. “Zakat Foundation is proud to have distributed over 1 million pounds of fresh food throughout the U.S.,” said Khalil Demir, the international nonprofit’s executive director. In its first Minneapolis distribution alone, during the George Floyd protests, Zakat Foundation relief workers passed out more than 36,000 pounds of colorful produce and 400 gallons of milk. “We want to put a little bit of love in the hearts of people, bring some healing to our nation,” Demir said. In only 10 days, Zakat Foundation delivered more than 120,000 pounds of free produce and milk into Minneapolis’ afflicted neighborhoods. They’ve now duplicated this giving for hard-pressed people in cities across the nation, including Chicago, New York, Durham (North Carolina), St. Louis and Oakland.
They returned for similar distributions in Minneapolis, with help from Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and her staff. Each produce box contained about 25 pounds of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. “I invited them to bring another container of food as there is, unfortunately, no shortage of need,” Congresswoman Omar said. “And I am honored to join and help them in the distribution.”
But they did not stop there. Zakat Foundation of America also secured and donated medical-grade gloves and masks to hospitals in underserved communities, distributing approximately 1 million pairs of gloves and more than 100,000 medical-grade masks, along with food packages, hygiene kits and even cash assistance.
“For two decades, Zakat Foundation has stood with the oppressed, providing aid to underrepresented communities throughout the world. Now is no time for us to stay silent,” said Amna Mirza, the global charity’s head of marketing and communications, who originally conceived of the idea for Zakat Foundation’s fresh food rescue campaign. “This is what Zakat Foundation stands for. To truly feel connected to each other. To understand the plight of our neighbor. To feel empathy. To understand it’s our humanity that connects us. It’s putting our common humanity above what divides us.”
The humanitarian organization was also among the first to recognize the mental health effects of the virus on the vulnerable population. Demir and his team utilized its mental health arm, Khalil Center, a national professional mental health group, to treat underserved Americans.
It made its help available nationwide, for free, to people adapting to the isolation of physical separation and shelter-in-place recommendations. “There’s a secondary contagion to COVID-19,” said Hooman Keshavarzi, Khalil Center’s executive director. “Panic and anxiety combined with forced social isolation and social distancing—the sudden, unpredicted change has drastically impacted all of our lives, resulting in detrimental mental health effects, especially given the uncertainty of how long such measures will remain in place.”
Khalil Center, a Zakat Foundation project, dedicated a crisis phone line, strong webtherapy services, an open chat forum, and a series of informational videos teaching practical steps for family and selfcare in light of COVID-19. They anticipated the needs of patients who could not reach their providers and others who felt a newly urgent need to seek out psychological consultation.
The pandemic affected every facet of society, and it has also exposed institutional systemic failures that need work. The nonprofit industry, as the third largest employer of skilled, talented and resilient American workers, is uniquely positioned to fill in the gaps and address these problems head on.
Humanitarian charities like Zakat Foundation of America have been ready and eager, rising to the challenge.