Whenever Bill Gates’ name comes up in conversations on social media these days it calls forth mostly haters who probably only know whatever social media tells us about him. We know he’s a billionaire. We know he co-founded Microsoft. We know his wife Melinda left him because of some behavior she could not tolerate. We know that when she left it was revealed that Bill Gates had been to Jeffrey Epstein’s island where Epstein allegedly trafficked underaged girls to rich and famous men. We do not know if Gates did anything disgusting but Melinda Gates sure sounded disgusted when she made her public announcement about the divorce.
Should we all shun Bill Gates because he might have gone beyond the pale? Perhaps once again we should take our cues from Melinda who is staying active in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, whatever his sins, still possesses one of the most rational minds of our era and his logical solutions to modern problems seem unclouded by a political agenda, very rare in an era of divided and passionate politics.
When Bill Gates wrote about climate change in his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, he used terms like “net zero” and “carbon neutral” to lower the heat on discussions of environmentalists and to erase blame. This objective approach allowed him to discuss lowering carbon emissions as a universal problem that we all have a stake in.
In How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, Bill Gates once again avoids politics and recriminations, although he does try to draw logical conclusions from contrasting public health choices. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been involved with public health in developing nations for years and has worked to control diseases like polio, AIDs. Ebola, and malaria by funding vaccination teams in remote areas. Polio has been almost completely eradicated worldwide in locations where vaccines have been allowed which seems to be everywhere except a small area in Pakistan.
Gates’ combination of logical thinking, access to experts, his long involvement with research and treatment of diseases, and his name recognition may help us take public health measures out of control of politics and allow us to use reasoned, unemotional steps to address future pandemics more efficiently. It could take America decades to heal our political divisions especially with so many conscious efforts being made to widen gaps between political parties.
Gates tells what worked and what didn’t for an airborne infection. He’s not saying anything new, just summarizing what worked with COVID and what turned out to be not as important. Masks worked, social distancing worked best with masks, worrying about germs on surfaces or on our hands and face were not as important in controlling this airborne virus. Gates advocates a global body to keep track of outbreaks and a GERM team – Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization team, which already seems problematic in today’s political environment since it contains the word “global.” Gates likes contact tracing but admits that it is also a problem given American politics, and he admits that this worked better in authoritarian societies. Even then it was still not perfect and there were definitely some human right’s issues.
Should we throw out the wisdom of Bill Gates because he is possibly flawed in ways that may be morally unacceptable? I see nothing earthshattering in Gates’ well-informed and realistic suggestions except that people may not be so willing to accept wisdom from a man they perceive as “damaged.” We cannot expect Melinda to air her objections to Bill in public, but we may be thinking the worst when the actual situation is quite different.
There is another problem with offering such rational solutions to us at a moment when we seem anything but rational. Looking at what we have managed to do to stop climate change we see that we seem to be moving backwards due to the war in Ukraine and its effect on gas and oil supplies from Russia, broken supply chains, an oil industry that underproduced in the pandemic and now claims that it can’t get up to speed as fast as we would like, and because of inflation. Currently we are talking about producing more oil and gas, opening old wells, and drilling new ones. The oil and gas industry argues that we do not have enough alternative energies to end our dependence on fossil fuels and clearly that is true at this moment. It is possible that fossil fuel companies are doing things, or not doing things, to make that so. The same may be true for pandemics. If we tried to take Bill Gates’ advice and use his well-reasoned approach to staying ahead of future pandemics the public health culture wars would make it impossible to apply public health initiatives throughout America, let alone throughout the world. In either the case of climate change or pandemics we may have to look for approaches that are not quite so reasonable, that in fact are greater challenges to individual freedom than telling people to wear a mask, or to stay home..