There’s a reason Microsoft founder Bill Gates is one of the world’s richest people. He’s able to see things that others don’t, and in a speech he gave at a conference in 2015, he basically predicted the coronavirus blitz that the world is dealing with today.
An eight-minute video is available online by searching for “Bill Gates 2015 TED.” But here’s some of what he said:
• “Today the greatest risk of global catastrophe doesn’t look like this,” as a picture of a nuclear explosion is shown. “Instead, it looks like this” — an image of the influenza virus.
• “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely going to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.”
• “We’re not ready for the next epidemic. Let’s look at Ebola. ... The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t a system that didn’t work well enough. The problem was that we didn’t have a system at all. ... The failure to prepare could allow the next epidemic to be dramatically more devastating than Ebola.”
Gates, who stepped away from Microsoft a number of years ago to run a global foundation to improve health care, eliminate poverty and improve education, was right on the money five years ago. The coronavirus is proving to be far more widespread than the Ebola virus or any other germ that has tested the world’s resistance in recent years. It has shut down wide segments of the American and global economies as phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place” become common.
As of Wednesday the virus had killed 46,000 people around the world, including more than 4,500 in the United States. And it’s painfully clear that not enough people in power over the last decade felt the urgency to allocate enough money for basic medical equipment like masks, gloves and gowns — prompting untold numbers of volunteers today to produce them as emergency substitutes for hospital staffs.
The inaction is explainable. In America, for instance, the government was already on pace to spend $1 trillion more than it took in this year. Life was good, so who wanted to be the spoilsport that said we ought to spend another billion or two preparing for a disaster that might not happen for a long time?
The cost of such inaction is now properly defined. Start with the interruption of everyday commerce that all of us took for granted but is requiring a $2 trillion bailout for businesses and individuals. Washington is already talking about another large injection of money into the economy if the impact of the virus lingers.
This is pretty easy math: A few billion at the most in advance spending to be thoroughly prepared for a pandemic, or $2 trillion or more as the price of not being prepared. And that cost does not even include the immense disruption to daily life that now faces the public.
In a column on The Washington Post website Tuesday, Gates advocated three actions to stamp out the coronavirus.
First, he said the country needs a “consistent nationwide approach to shutting down.” Mississippi joined this effort on Wednesday. He believes that public resistance to these measures only lengthen the existing situation, and also sets up the potential for the virus to return.
He called for extensive testing of the public to get a better idea when it’s safe to resume normal activity. American test capacity is increasing, which is why the count of people with the virus is rising so rapidly in the last few days.
Finally, he said the world needs rapid research that leads to a safe and effective vaccine. It will require the production of billions of doses in order to protect residents of developing countries, many of whom lack access to proper health care.