What are billionaires afraid of? A wealth tax? Universal healthcare? Immigrants from several specific places in the world? Probably. But if you ask one billionaire, Bill Gates—who has spent the last several years spending money to combat deadly epidemics—he’ll answer with a very detailed description of a global threat to everyone, not just the handful of people in his (un)tax(ed) bracket: Pandemics like the 1918 Spanish flu, as he told Vox’s Ezra Klein in the 2015 video interview above. The disease infected around 27 percent of the world’s population and killed tens of millions of people from every social class.
Such events are highly probable, and we should be prepared for them. “I rate the chance of a widespread epidemic far worse than Ebola in my lifetime at well over 50 percent,” he says. In fact, Gates met with the president two years ago to urge federal action on pandemic preparedness. He was heard and ignored.
Now, as the CDC faces the spread of coronavirus in major cities around the country, it finds itself woefully unprepared for the task. “The truth is we’ve not invested, we’ve underinvested in the public health labs,” director Robert Redfield told Congress in recent hearings. “There’s not enough equipment, there’s not enough people, there’s not enough internal capacity….”
The situation looks bleak, but Gates was “optimistic” despite his predictions. And why shouldn’t he be? Klein wrote: “He’s one of the richest men in the world,” and he also “runs a foundation immersed in the world’s problems” and “can measure them getting better.” But a deadly pandemic remains “the most predictable catastrophe in the history of the human race,” writes Klein. Maybe Gates should have urged the government to prepare by explaining how it would boost the oil and hotel industries.
For those who can be persuaded by evidence of a possible pandemic’s effect on human lives, Gates modeled how a disease as deadly and infectious as the Spanish flu would act today. “Within 60 days it’s basically in all urban centers around the entire globe,” he says. “That didn’t happen with the Spanish flu.” He explains further in the TED talk above how the “greatest risk of global catastrophe” doesn’t look like a mushroom cloud but like the spiky microscopic ball of the influenza virus, or its equivalent. That may not be COVID-19, but whatever it is, Gates has been warning for years, we are not ready.