COVID-19: Learning from Past Funding Initiatives and their Dismissal in Southeast Asia




philanthropy, development aid, emerging infectious diseases, EIDS, COVID-19, pandemic, Southeast Asia, China


This article examines philanthropic funding of past efforts to control emerging infectious diseases in Southeast Asia and China. The recount, based on personal insights as a foundation professional and a review of both published and unpublished material, shows that American foundations and other like-minded donors identified the risks associated with zoonotic infections early on – including from the same coronavirus family that is causing the current COVID-19 pandemic – and were later followed by bilateral and multilateral donors investing greater resources. At the cusp of the 2000s, foundations played a leadership and catalyst role in advancing a transdisciplinary agenda to better understand and respond to new emerging threats and in building the necessary individual and institutional capacities for regional and local disease surveillance. For more than a decade, this concentration of resources and approaches was recognised as having contributed to better preparedness. Gradually, however, funding initiatives declined in value and intensity due to several internal and external factors. This article argues that COVID-19 arrives in the midst of an unfinished donor agenda and that it is important to reflect on why philanthropic foundations, and the development aid community more generally, found themselves unprepared for the pandemic in order to draw lessons for addressing today’s crisis – and future outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases.

Author Biography

Rosalia Sciortino, Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR), Mahidol University

Dr Rosalia Sciortino Sumaryono is Associate Professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, Visiting Professor at the Master in International Development Studies (MAIDS), Chulalongkorn University, and Director SEA Junction ( Most recently, she was IDRC Regional Director for Southeast and East Asia (2010-2014), Senior Adviser to AusAID in Indonesia (2009-2010), and Regional Director for Southeast Asia of the Rockefeller Foundation (2000-2007). She also served as program officer at the Indonesia and Philippines offices of the Ford Foundation (1993-2000). She received her doctoral degree cum laude from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and has published widely on development issues in Southeast Asia. In November 2017, she received a medal by the Vietnamese Association of Social Sciences for her contribution to social sciences in Vietnam.


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How to Cite

Sciortino, R. (2021). COVID-19: Learning from Past Funding Initiatives and their Dismissal in Southeast Asia . ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 20(1), 182–201.