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As a global faith with headquarters in Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well-positioned to enlist a veritable army of helpers to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
It has a worldwide network of leaders and members who see preparedness for disasters as a theological principle and who can address needs quickly and efficiently — and a multibillion-dollar “rainy day fund” that could be used for humanitarian relief.
Since January, the church says it has provided support, supplies and funding in the United States, Cambodia, China, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Italy, Iran, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
In China, the church worked with Project HOPE to offer “personal protective equipment,” including masks, goggles and coveralls. In Iran, it partnered with Moms Against Poverty for the same items and, in Italy, where the raging virus has caused much death and devastation, it worked with INTERSOS, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization that assists victims of natural disaster, and MEDU, an international shipping company in Geneva, to deliver these supplies as well as informational material and hygiene kits.
Few, if any, may be better suited to direct the church’s global aid efforts than Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the general presidency of the faith’s all-female Relief Society.
The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Eubank this week via teleconferencing about the relief work. She was joined by Bryant Pankratz, senior manager of emergency response and refugee services; Rick Foster, manager of Utah Area welfare and self-reliance; and Megan Burt, manager of bishops’ storehouses and home storage centers’ production and distribution.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tribune • What is the church doing in Utah?
Foster • We’re working closely with the Utah Food Bank to coordinate a lot of requests that we’re getting from smaller regional pantries across the area. As we supply the food bank, we are asking the Utah Food Bank to use their network to get food to these smaller pantries. We’ve also been working closely with several of the medical facilities … and these requests for personal protective equipment, specifically N95 masks and other types of medical equipment, keep coming. So we’re coordinating that with the Utah Hospital Association, with the Utah Department of Health, as well as individual hospitals, trying to identify those needs, coordinate where these agencies and these facilities can acquire what they’re looking for, and then we’ll do what we can to either provide cash or supplies that we have within our resources.
We’ve been working with [Salt Lake County] on the opening of some of the quarantine and isolation centers that have been popping up. We’ve been asked to support those centers with hygiene kits, with mattresses, box springs and personal protective equipment. We put these folks in touch with some of our vendor partners to arrive at maybe some better solutions for resources that may work better, and at a reduced cost, in those quarantine and isolation centers — for instance, utilizing cots and camp mats rather than beds with springs and mattresses.
Tribune • Anything else?
Foster • We’ve also been working with the school districts in conjunction with the Department of Workforce Services as needs are identified — not only for food, but diapers and wipes, baby food and personal hygiene items. We are coordinating those requests with the Utah Food Bank to ensure that we’re not replicating the dissemination of any resource but that we’re kind of feathering [our services] across the community to ensure that everyone’s immediate needs are attended to and that no one entity has more than they should have.
We’re also working with the Native American tribes throughout the state. As their needs have dramatically increased, we are identifying those needs and then, where we can, providing support from our Bishops’ Central Storehouse or from our local members. We’re also working nationally, with organizations like the Salvation Army, Feeding America and Convoy of Hope, again to coordinate how best to respond with resources that we have.
Tribune • What are you doing to restock your supply of masks specifically?
Eubank • It’s helpful to know there are four kinds of masks. There’s the highest quality, which is the N95 and it blocks out 97% of the virus and everything else. And that’s what people need in the very most critical situations. Early on, the church donated its supply of N95 masks and some others and then we procured others as well. But there’s also surgical masks, made from what’s called “surgical wrap.” And they’re almost as effective, but there’s also a shortage of those right now. We’re looking at ways that we could even manufacture some of those if we can get the raw materials. And then there are cloth masks — cloth masks that can be sterilized at the hospital, which make those disposable masks last longer. And then, as a last resort, if you’re just completely out, then you want to use those. Then there’s the masks you see people wear when they’re sick. They’re just for droplets collection, which keeps people from infecting everybody on the subway and everywhere else. We’re focused on the top three particularly but maybe four. We’re working with our vendors as much as possible at getting those N95 out, and we’re funding other partners to get their vendor supplies so that we can [find] as many as possible and get them donated. We are working with vendors to actually make more surgical wrap masks, and then we’re working on community efforts on making those cloth masks.
Tribune • I know that the LDS Church has been donating medical equipment and emergency supplies to 16 countries. What kind of equipment? Does the church just donate money to organizations that are already doing that or does the church buy the equipment and then distribute it?
Pankratz • The majority of our efforts are focused with our global partners. And we also work through our area offices; sometimes we’ll work with local partners. We provide cash donations, and they go out and pick the medical equipment that’s needed. We had some limited medical supplies in our storehouse, and we’ve shipped those out, principally to China, and to several other countries in Asia. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to restock those supplies.
Tribune • Let’s talk about food production. What has the church done on that score recently?
Eubank • Two years ago, the welfare committee, the self-reliance committee, made a strategic decision to reduce our stock of raw products like wheat and put it more into finished products like pancakes, flour and pasta — the things that people use. And so over the last two years we’ve really ramped up that production in more finished products, and that turned out to be really fortunate because the bishops’ storehouses are pretty stocked and the home storage centers are stocked in most things. It’s critical to keep the bishops’ storehouses and the programs that what we do with the homeless feeding centers, the school lunch programs, and all those things that we support in the communities. These are essential services now.
Burt • We have several humanitarian grants, where we’ll donate some of these commodities and food items to them. And so we typically maintain a very healthy amount of inventory. … That enables us to run for a few months without doing additional production. However, we are watching the trends very closely in terms of the needs arising with increases in unemployment. We’re seeing our distribution levels increase, and we’re seeing requests for humanitarian aid increase so we are working on ramping up our production levels. Accordingly, we’re adding additional shifts to our production facilities, while still maintaining the appropriate guidelines of 10 or fewer people in a certain work area so that we can keep everybody safe. We’ve also been working to get some additional volunteerism … and I’ve had a great response from local communities with some healthy volunteers that are willing to come in and help, and be a part of feeding those that are in need.
Tribune • Who gets the food? Is it just for Latter-day Saints or can anyone apply and get food help?
Burt • Some of the orders will go through the [Latter-day Saint] bishop, the congregational leader, for that particular ward. But [you do not] necessarily have to be a member to ask for that assistance. People also get help through our humanitarian partnerships. We also help groups such as refugee populations, and others.
Tribune • What’s the difference between the bishops’ storehouse and home storage centers?
Burt • The bishops’ storehouse is primarily for the immediate needs of people who need groceries and other commodities and cannot afford to go and get them on their own. The home storage centers provide long-term food storage products that are typically packaged for a 20- or 30-year life span. And this is really for people who want to be prepared … in the case of an emergency or a potential food shortage, and they are open to the public.
Tribune • What about church farms and canneries?
Burt • Farming season will continue as it normally does. … We’re getting ready for planting, starting to plant some crops and planning to harvest them so that whatever we produce, we’ll use it within the system to provide the products that you’ll find at the bishops’ storehouses and the home storage centers.
Eubank • If a crop fails or there’s a pandemic or there are shortages, there’s enough reserve in our can-produced system to be able to last probably one to two years. But every year we do our planting, and we’re going to go ahead and do that again because you got to keep supplying that system. There’s also a one- to two-year reserve built into it.
Tribune • I read that an LDS meetinghouse in Chile, which is sitting empty because church services have been canceled, is being used as a makeshift hospital. Is that true?
Eubank • I saw that same report, and it was a wonderful partnership between the area presidency and the government who said, “Look, we need space.” So the local ward opened up that chapel for 48 beds, and I think area presidents will respond as needed in the situation.
Tribune • Is there a plan to make that go everywhere?
Eubank • No, but we’re happy to respond to governments as they make requests, with our resources of the future.
Tribune • Outside the U.S., is the church partnering with other groups?
Eubank • Yes, every area has an [Latter-day Saint] humanitarian and self-reliance representative who works with local government agencies, who might appeal to me. They say, “What if we go beyond our budget,” and we’ve said, “We’ll supply more emergency funding if that’s what’s needed.” So part of our job [at Latter-day Saint Charities] is to manage the funding and the resources that get pushed out to them, but their job is to find out what’s the local need and help.
Tribune • How can Latter-day Saints help others during this coronavirus pandemic?
Eubank • Be disciplined about social distancing; it’s the kindest thing you can do for your community. Spend time talking/listening to kids and older people — this is an anxious time and there is lots to process. Volunteer when you can do it safely; this is the chance for us all to help. Also, use the church’s JustServe app to post opportunities that need help and to find ways to help others.