Bill Gates, who predicted this pandemic five years ago, is now turning his attention to what’s next — and the simplest way to describe it, he says, is “semi-normal.”
People will be able to go out again after lockdown orders are lifted, “but not as often, and not to crowded places,” Gates writes in a new blog post.
“Picture restaurants that only seat people at every other table, and airplanes where every middle seat is empty,” he writes in the post. “Schools are open, but you can’t fill a stadium with 70,000 people. People are working some and spending some, but not as much as they were before the pandemic. In short, times are abnormal but not as abnormal as during the first phase.”
He makes it clear that this semi-normal state won’t be a temporary condition.
“If in the spring of 2021 people are going to big public events — like a game or concert in a stadium — it will be because we have a miraculous treatment that made people feel confident about going out again,” he writes.
That’s one of the key messages in the 6,300-word post, published Thursday morning. Gates offers his take on the current state and future course of the COVID-19 outbreak, assesses the world’s efforts to contain it, and describes the innovations and approaches that he believes will be key to combat the disease in the years ahead.
His starkly pragmatic take on life after lockdown stands in contrast with the prediction from President Trump and other members of the administration that the economy will come “roaring back.”
The post is titled “Pandemic 1,” a reference to COVID-19’s status as “the first modern pandemic,” as Gates puts it. He says the pandemic will define this era in the same way that World War II did in its time. “No one who lives through Pandemic I will ever forget it,” he writes. “And it is impossible to overstate the pain that people are feeling now and will continue to feel for years to come.”
As the pandemic has spread around the world, infecting more than 2.6 million people and killing more than 184,000 thus far, the Microsoft co-founder has been outspoken in his comments and become a target of widely debunked conspiracy theories in the process.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $250 million thus far to efforts to combat the spread of the disease.
“The heavy cost of the pandemic for lower-paid and poor people is a special concern for Melinda and me. The disease is disproportionately hurting poorer communities and racial minorities,” he writes. “Likewise, the economic impact of the shutdown is hitting low-income, minority workers the hardest. Policymakers will need to make sure that, as the country opens up, the recovery doesn’t make inequality even worse than it already is.”
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Continuing the World War II comparison, Gates cites the “amazing amount of innovation” that emerged from that era, including radar, torpedoes and code-breaking. He says he expects the same from the pandemic, and he points to five categories of innovation: treatments, vaccines, testing, contact tracing, and policies for emerging from lockdown orders.
“Short of a miracle treatment, which we can’t count on, the only way to return the world to where it was before COVID showed up is a highly effective vaccine that prevents the disease,” he writes. “Unfortunately, the typical development time for a vaccine against a new disease is over 5 years.”
In this case, Gates says he agrees with public health officials who believe that large-scale vaccination is likely 18 months away, but illustrates the uncertainty when he says, “it could be as short as 9 months or closer to 2 years.”
“When the vaccine is first being manufactured, there will be a question of who should be vaccinated first,” he writes. “Ideally, there would be global agreement about who should get the vaccine first, but given how many competing interests there are, this is unlikely to happen. The governments that provide the funding, the countries where the trials are run, and the places where the pandemic is the worst will all make a case that they should get priority.”
Gates says widespread testing will be critical as life starts to return to normal. He points to the potential of new forms of testing, including an emerging Rapid Diagnostic Test that could provide results at home without sending a sample to a lab. Gates is also funding researchers conducting a mail-in nasal swab test in the Seattle region.
“You want to have so much testing going on that you see hot spots and are able to intervene by changing policy before the numbers get large. You don’t want to wait until the hospitals start to fill up and the number of deaths goes up.”
For a sense of what life could look like in developed countries as they return to “semi-normal,” he points to Microsoft’s 6,200-person operation in China.
“So far about half are now coming into work,” he writes. “They are continuing to provide support to employees who want to work at home. They insist people with symptoms stay home. They require masks and provide hand sanitizer and do more intensive cleaning. Even at work, they apply distancing rules and only allow travel for exceptional reasons.”
Despite the stark picture, he ends on an upbeat note, saying he and Melinda Gates “are impressed with how the world is coming together to fight this fight.”
“Every day, we talk to scientists at universities and small companies, CEOs of pharmaceutical companies, or heads of government to make sure that the new tools I’ve discussed become available as soon as possible. And there are so many heroes to admire right now, including the health workers on the front line. When the world eventually declares Pandemic 1 over, we will have all of them to thank for it.”
GeekWire’s Alan Boyle contributed to this report.