As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the globe, Bill and Melinda Gates have been on the forefront of coordinating the search for effective prevention and treatment of the disease. The couple, who has spent years fighting against infectious diseases like polio, is critical of the U.S. response to Covid-19 — its testing and contact tracing efforts lag behind countries like Germany. “Usually the United States plays a role in global problem-solving, so rather than withdrawing from WHO, they’d be involved, collaborating with other countries, not just trying to cast blame. It’s a tricky situation, where the U.S. sort of turned inward on this one,” Bill Gates said at the ninth annual and first virtual Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy last Thursday.
“We’re trying to stitch different country efforts together. The European leaders are trying to fill that vacuum,” the Microsoft cofounder told the 200-plus philanthropists gathered online for his talk. “[U.S. inaction] erodes the kind of relationship and admiration and self confidence that people have had in us as a country,” added Gates, who brought up the WHO’s key role in the fight against smallpox and polio. Gates said that “rationality will reappear from someone at some point,” and hoped that the U.S. will work with other countries and step up the way it did with smallpox, malaria, polio and HIV.
Though the virus will remain a threat until the majority of the globe is inoculated, Gates says he is optimistic about the initial results from three coronavirus vaccine candidates (made by Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson). But the real test will be in the manufacturing and distribution of the eventual product, because the world needs more than 10 billion doses to vaccinate 80% of the population (the current estimate of percentage needed to achieve herd immunity) with a two-dose vaccine. The tech visionary estimated that it’s a doable task over two years if both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s candidates are successful, but the prolonged manufacturing process means there needs to be coordination in how the vaccine is distributed.
“One of the reasons we are so involved in this is that you don’t want the first vaccines to go to the highest bidding countries,” Melinda Gates explained. “There are 60 million healthcare workers [around the world]. They deserve to get the vaccine first, they’re the ones dealing with this on the frontlines trying to keep us all safe. And then you have to start to tier from there, based on the countries and the populations. Here in the United States, it’s going to be Black people who really should get it first and many indigenous people, as well as people with underlying symptoms, and then elderly people.”
The couple, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $350 million to fight the coronavirus, plans to utilize two nonprofits — The Global Fund To Fight AIDs Tuberculosis and Malaria and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — to help equitably distribute therapeutics and vaccines to developing countries. Their foundation pledged an additional $1.6 billion in early June to assist with Gavi's wider mission for the next five years. The Gateses also reiterated their support for the World Health Organization, which they’ve worked with for two decades. “It is not perfect, it’s not even close to perfect, but it is what the world set up after World War II to deal with things like this pandemic,” Melinda said of the WHO. President Trump announced the U.S.’ intention to withdraw membership and funding from the international organization in late May.
Melinda Gates revealed that when Ebola broke out in East Africa and made its way to Lagos, Nigeria — one of the most populous cities in the world — the WHO converted its polio resources to fight the new threat. Polio clinics became emergency response clinics that did contact tracing and quarantining, which prevented the virus from spreading to the U.S. “The world got lucky on Ebola,” said Melinda, who reminded the audience that diseases like measles were more infectious than coronavirus. “There are other hemorrhagic fevers out there. If we don’t have a functioning WHO, we’re not going to see an immediate response like that.”
As the weather gets colder, the Gateses see a second wave of coronavirus infections as likely and think masks are a key deterrent. The couple is critical of the general lack of compliance in the U.S. when it comes to wearing masks. “A mask is not that expensive, it’s not that ugly,” Bill commented. “The elevator pitch is: test, contact trace, isolate and quarantine, and wear a mask, and role model wearing a mask. Every single person should be wearing a mask, without an exception,” Melinda implored.
The couple pointed out the disproportionate effect coronavirus has had on minorities, and the gaps in the healthcare system that the pandemic has exposed. Melinda, who recently partnered with MacKenzie Bezos to launch the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, a competition that will award $30 million to organizations with ideas to help expand women’s power in the U.S. by 2030, also highlighted gender inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. More women work at the hospitality and retail jobs devastated by shutdown orders, and a lower percentage of women are rejoining the workforce as the economy reopens.
“The other issue that’s going on is we know women are doing 2.5 more times unpaid labor at home” such as caring for the elderly or making sure the kids are keeping up with their virtual schooling, said Melinda, who brought up that the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not have a federal family medical leave policy. “We cannot reopen this economy the way we want to unless we deal with the unpaid labor. We have to update our thinking… Today, of most married families with a child, 64% of them [have both parents] go out and work. So if we’re going to take care of the family and take care of capitalism and the economy, you’ve got to address that issue.”
The couple, who started the Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett ten years ago, wrapped up their talk by asking the philanthropists from 27 countries in attendance to give now. “This is our time. We as philanthropists will be remembered by what we do during this time of this epidemic,” said Melinda. “There are so many places you can invest. Whether it’s in food insecurity in your own city, whether it’s helping with race issues, whether it’s helping with Covid specifically, we’ve seen so many philanthropists step up and do creative things in their communities.”