BIll Gates, a former Microsoft boss, has long been my favorite tech billionaire. Thoughtful, seemingly decent, intellectually curious and intelligent out of scale, it is not driven so much by the motive for profit as by a genuine sense of the social purpose of business and innovation, with their power to improve life and generate prosperity.
Now the world’s leading public health philanthropist, there are as few prophetic entrepreneurs as Gates. Five years ago, he gave a speech on Ted in which he warned in terms of the dangers of a global pandemic. “If something kills 10 million people, it’s more likely to be a virus than a war,” he said. “We have invested huge quantities in nuclear deterrents but in reality we have invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. If we start now, we can be ready for the next pandemic.”
We can barely say that despite Ebola’s alarm bell, his words have gone unheeded, at least in the United States, Britain and much of the rest of Europe. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in reality it cannot be offered as an excuse in this case. There have been multiple warnings from the likes of Gates, yet the coronavirus still found us terribly unprepared.
In addition to an increasing death toll, we are also seeing an extreme economic cost, which is beyond any previous experience in the modern era. Whatever the expense required to predict a pandemic, it would have been trivial against the already catastrophic costs of what we are facing.
Eventually, the coronavirus epidemic will subside, but with an economy that appears to have been bombed and a workforce that has become so accustomed to subsisting on what amounts to a “basic universal income” provided by the state that it has lost all work. In any case, there may not be many jobs to go back to.
I was told that when the Treasury modeled the blockade, he speculated that something like 10% of the economy would be removed. This now seems like an extreme underestimate. And although this in itself is a reasonable assumption of the direct impact, it appears that it cannot take into account spill-over effects. Remove a part of the building and, like a Jenga game, the whole thing can collapse. When restaurants close their doors, for example, there will be closures along the supply chain very soon.
There is also growing confusion, compounded by the mixed messaging of ministers and government officials, about who should work and who shouldn’t. Is all the work considered “non-essential” to be interrupted, even among companies able to enforce the recommended social distances in the workplace? This indeed would appear to be the consequence of government education. If all companies interpreted it that way, even “essential” work would soon be in difficulty, so is the degree of interconnection of the economy.
For economic reasons only, no matter the psychological tensions of an indefinite blockade, the country must therefore know what the exit strategy is. Having entered this hole, unfortunately it is extraordinarily difficult to get out of it again.
The long-term solution is obviously a vaccine. This could be developed within 18 months, according to Gates, writing in the Washington Post last week. But he is optimistic. A common cold vaccine, the holy grail of the global pharmaceutical industry – which promises wealth beyond the dreams of avarice for anyone who breaks it – has not yet been found. The same goes for HIV, despite more than 30 years of trying. The GlaxoSmithKline malaria vaccine took many years to develop and is only 30% effective. Most flu shots are equally hit and miss. GSK’s shingles vaccine has been in preparation for 15 years.
The industry also appears to be grappling with a reliable antibody test, which would allow citizens to know if they have already had Covid-19 and therefore can safely return to work with some degree of immunity and confidence that they will no longer infect others. . Risen like Lazarus from his sick bed, Matt Hancock, UK health secretary, said last week that none of the tests developed so far has proven reliable.