Thanks to Bill Gates, Seattle is a different kind of epicenter in this pandemic: The search for a vaccine, spreading constructive ideas for tackling the disease and encouraging global cooperation.
In late April, he wrote on his GatesNotes blog about COVID-19 and the scientific advances needed to stop it. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $250 million directly to fight the pandemic.
Indeed, in an interview with the Financial Times, the Microsoft co-founder pledged that the $40 billion foundation would give its “total attention” to a crisis that he fears will cost the world “tens of trillions of dollars.”
He told the newspaper, “We’ve taken an organization that was focused on HIV and malaria and polio eradication, and almost entirely shifted it to work on this. This has the foundation’s total attention. Even our non-health related work, like higher education and K-12 (schools), is completely switched around to look at how you facilitate online learning.”
His fact-based approach and his defense of the World Health Organization have also put him at odds with a president for whom truth is, er, situational. This has made Gates a target of right-wing attacks and conspiracy theories.
The world’s second-richest person stepping up in this arena is a contrast to the richest, Jeff Bezos, who is back hands-on at Amazon. The pandemic has brought hefty revenues to Seattle’s largest company because of stay-home shoppers — but also unprecedented challenges. Bezos said Thursday the “current crisis is demonstrating the adaptability and durability of Amazon’s business as never before, but it’s also the hardest time we’ve ever faced.”
Then we have billionaire Elon Musk (definitely not “Iron Man’s” Tony Stark).
As Matt Novak on Gizmodo put it, Musk, “America’s dumbest smart guy, spent the night tweeting about how America needs to ‘reopen’ its economy, despite Musk’s failed predictions about the trajectory of the coronavirus crisis.”
In March, Musk predicted that new coronavirus cases in America would be “close to zero” by the end of April. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, the United States was reporting more than 20,000 new cases a day. (And this is the guy who’s going to take us to Mars and build tube thingies to replace mass transit?)
To be fair, Gates isn’t running Microsoft anymore. But the former Beast of Redmond has been a leader in protecting employees, noodling over a health care “moonshot” and bringing protective equipment from overseas.
What a long journey it’s been from Gates as the predatory assassin of Netscape and leader of a company that brought a long antitrust investigation by the federal government. One can wonder how the then-35-year-old Gates would have responded to a global emergency.
On the other hand, he long had a sense of stewardship. I remember a talk or interview he gave in the 1990s, saying how the disproportionate rewards that the marketplace had given him also required giving back.
I wrote a column in 2014 where I contrasted him with J. Pierpont Morgan, the Gilded Age financier, who famously said, “I owe the public nothing.” Gates, by contrast, believes he owes the public and the world nearly everything.
“He is ebullient with ideas, causes, responses and solutions to myriad challenges,” I wrote. “His fortune ensures that he is heard, indeed that he can exert outsized influence on public policy.”
But even then, he was making enemies and not all of them ideologues. Economist Dambisa Moya questioned whether aid to developing nations delivers the promised outcomes. Diane Ravich, the education reformer, argued that the charter-school movement advocated by Gates was merely cover to destroy public education and profit charter operators.
So Citizen Gates is hardly new to controversy in his post-Microsoft life.
The caution is that someone who is extraordinarily clever in one field isn’t necessarily as brilliant in others, however much money he has.
Still, Gates believes in science and surrounds himself with expertise. He’s constantly learning. The genius of Gates is undeniable. Check out the Netflix documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” One interesting assessment: “He does best when the deck is stacked against him.”
That’s certainly true with the COVID-19 pandemic.
We shouldn’t have to depend on billionaires to take the lead. But with the anti-government ideology of President Donald Trump and the Republicans, the Other Washington has been an embarrassment of lies, incompetence and quackery. House Democrats seem paralyzed.
No wonder the distinguished journalist George Packer penned a startling essay in The Atlantic entitled, “We Are Living in a Failed State.”
Packer wrote, “Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan — no coherent instructions at all — families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter.
“When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering.
“Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power — a beggar nation in utter chaos.”
The situation has improved since then, largely thanks to governors such as Washington’s Jay Inslee. But this isn’t the response I’d expect from the nation that landed men on the moon and had long been warned by leaders, most recently by President Barack Obama, about the danger of a pandemic.
We face a very long recovery: economically, socially and, of course, in health. It’s a good thing Gates is engaged. He represents the kind of leadership this fractious, divided republic needs to find a true north. Both leaders and billionaires come in different stripes. I hope we can tell them apart.