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THOMPSON: We should listen to Bill Gates' pandemic prognostications

January 04, 2021 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


It’s a new year and who’s to say what 2021 might bring with the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, if we’re looking for an accurate prognosticator, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is likely the go-to guy.

Now, before you say, “Hey, he’s not a doctor or scientist, what about Dr. Fauci?” Indeed, Dr. Fauci is one of the world’s most respected epidemiologists, so we should continue to listen to him and a host of other science-based experts.

But Gates not only belongs in that esteemed group...he can lead it. As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has - in scholarly fashion - studied infectious diseases and their spread for more than two decades.

Remember, the Gates Foundation’s focus is developing inexpensive medications and vaccines to treat persistent infectious diseases - including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), polio and malaria - in poor and underserved nations.

It should surprise no one that this billionaire genius - who still takes only a week’s vacation a year and spends that time reading Ph. D. theses and scientific abstracts - stands on solid ground giving advice about pandemics. And we should listen.

Gates studied the emergence of infectious diseases like swine flu, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, and five years ago concluded that the world was largely unprepared for a pandemic.

FILE PHOTO - Bill Gates attends the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016.
FILE PHOTO - Bill Gates attends the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Let’s consider his past accuracy in predicting the future. In April 2018, Gates predicted a worldwide pandemic from an unknown pathogen that we would see for the first time. BINGO! Previously, in 2016 he cautioned then President-Elect Donald Trump, advising him to form a team to fight a likely pandemic during his term of office. Of course, Trump ignored the advice.

Trump wasn’t the only leader willing to whistle through a dark alley. Since wealthier nations didn’t suffer Ebola, Zika, MERS and SARS, why would they think a pandemic would reach their shores?

Unfortunately, strategies to fight the spread of COVID-19 have been based as much on politics as science in many nations...and social media has furthered misinformation and conspiracy theories as much as fact-based science.

Still, there’s reason for optimism. Vaccines are in mass production...and most Canadians will be vaccinated by Summer. But there are some dark days ahead...this Winter will see even higher infection and death rates, according to Gates, Fauci and other experts. It doesn’t help either that a new strain already reached Canada from the UK...and while no deadlier than the original virus...it’s much more contagious.

In the U.S., even what seems simple remains murky. Organizing the drug and vaccine trials was unclear early on...and still is. The science is good...but the coordination and distribution...not so much. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't organize drug and vaccine trials, and the Food and Drug Administration regulates rather than organizes trials...and is supposed to review them to make sure they're done well. The National Institutes of Health handles primary research and coordinates with universities, but doesn’t lead the effort either. Who’s on first?

This bureaucratic approach, plus President Trump’s and Republicans’ conspiracy-theory-driven response, meant hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily. Thus far, more than 360,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Canada has lost more than 16,000 people.

Gates more recently predicted that the pandemic will change us even further as we re-enter more normal times later this year. Gates says business trips might decrease by 50 percent...and might not return to pre-pandemic levels...ever. Recent surveys show companies can operate well with less travel, and most plan to reserve business trips for occasional face-to-face meetings.

Long term, Gates says the offices of the future might see shared facilities, with employees of different companies working different days in the same office space. That might sound far-fetched...but I wouldn’t bet against Gates’ insights.

One thing is clear almost everywhere, governments need to do a better job of protecting the public. That means being less politically motivated and reactive...and communicating facts and truths more effectively. Because of the reticence to mandate masks...more people died than should have. Gates said more nations should have followed the strategies of New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

These countries and cities implemented stringent public health interventions (compulsory self-isolation following travel, early border closure, nationwide lockdown, isolation of cases and close contacts and wearing masks).

Had the rest of the world adopted such a science-based strategy the economic impact would have been closer to US $3 trillion instead of US $13 trillion. Gates said he underestimated the widespread resistance to what seems common sense and caring about others.

Unfortunately, in the absence of clear communication from governments about the spread of COVID-19 and the progress of vaccines, the public gobbled up misinformation and conspiracies. We’ll see just how much that affects the willingness of people in Canada and elsewhere to be vaccinated in the months ahead.

I wrote this column because I’ve heard much misinformation about Bill Gates...“What does he know?” It’s become popular on social media to attack the billionaire capitalist. But that’s simply people unaware of this man’s past...his intellectual capabilities...and his reliance on science rather than politics in matters of public health. 

Bill Gates notwithstanding...as we begin vaccinations, some things in 2021 shouldn’t change much from 2020. We need to limit contact with others, stay at least six feet from folks, wash our hands often, and wear a mask. If we do...it’ll be a better year.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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