Descending from Mount Billionaire, Bill Gates is the rumpled angel of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Microsoft co-founder and world’s second-richest man has warned us for years, decades even, to take the threat of epidemics and pandemics seriously. Today the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to finding ways to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
The effort has evolved into Mr. Gates’s highest-profile crusade since the foundation was launched 20 years ago. With an endowment of US$46.8-billion at last count, the foundation has always focused on human health, spending fortunes to try to eradicate polio and malaria, reduce HIV infections and deliver life-saving vaccines to countries with poorly developed health care systems.
The arrival of the pandemic has given Mr. Gates newfound credibility. In a 2015 TED Talk, he said that “if anything kills more than 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be an infectious virus rather than a war.”
He repeated the warning in lectures, interviews and medical journals – to little avail. When COVID-19 tore through Wuhan, China, late last year and galloped across the planet, governments and health care systems were largely unprepared. By Friday, there were more than 4.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases globally, with 305,000 deaths – 87,000 of them in the United States. The true figures are probably much higher.
I admire Mr. Gates for his prescient warning about the pandemic, his largely apolitical, science-based approach to finding ways to stop it. My problem with his approach is that it’s heavily focused on dream technology – as it always is with Mr. Gates, which should not come as a surprise considering he started the Big Tech revolution in the 1970s with the launch of Microsoft (with a market value of almost US$1.4-trillion, the company remains atop of the tech heap).
Big money and big tech can be solutions to a health crisis – but are not always the solution. Sometimes the easy stuff can produce wins too. Mr. Gates ran into this issue a few years ago, when he was pumping the wonders of technology at United Nations food conferences. To boost crop yields, he spouted the alleged benefits of genetically modified seeds and concepts such as “digital agriculture” and a “global productivity target.”
In other words, expensive, long-term projects with uncertain outcomes. Never mind that many farmers in the developing world would be much happier with faster, easier, cheaper solutions such as basic infrastructure – roads and warehouses – to get food to markets before it spoils (the UN says one-third of food production is wasted). Or simple irrigation techniques – in Africa, only 6 per cent of cultivated land is irrigated.
So it is with COVID-19. Take masks. More evidence is emerging virtually every day that masks, if widely used, can work well to contain and reverse a pandemic, allowing economies to open more quickly. But in the Western world, far less so than in Asia, masks for the most part are uncomfortable, not as effective as they should be in stopping the tiniest breath particles, too expensive and not widely available. In Italy, the original European epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, inexpensive and effective masks are still absent from most pharmacies – almost three months after the outbreak was detected.
If there were ever a time to invent better masks and convince people to wear them, it would be now.
Epidemiologists, immunologists, other doctors and researchers are touting the benefits of masks. A research paper published last month by scientists from Cambridge and University College London, among other research centres, concluded that “without masking, lifting lockdown after nine weeks while keeping social distancing measures will risk a major second wave of the epidemic in 4-5 months’ time.”
An open letter signed this week by 100 scientists and health authorities from around the world said that “requiring fabric mask use in public places could be amongst the most powerful tools to stop the community spread of COVID-19.”
Mr. Gates agrees that masks can play a role in containing the coronavirus. He has used newspaper comment pieces to promote the widespread allocation of masks, gloves and diagnostic tests as part of a co-ordinated global approach to fighting the disease. But he is far more concerned about finding, producing and distributing a vaccine.
That’s fine – his financial and moral clout will no doubt speed up the development of a vaccine, which may ultimately be the only way to snuff out the disease. His foundation’s spending on COVID-19 has already surpassed US$300-million and probably will go much higher, as the disease shows no sign of burning out, even if it is contained in some countries.
But by his own admission, an effective vaccine may not emerge from the lab for at least nine months and as long as two years. There is some chance the effort could take longer or prove entirely unsuccessful. If Mr. Gates is looking for a quick win in the global fight to kill off the pandemic, a relatively inexpensive, low-tech solution – a new type of mask – may be his best bet.
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