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The new normal, according to Bill Gates (and when it arrives)

LinkedIn logo LinkedIn 4/15/2020 Daniel Roth, Editor in Chief, LinkedIn
Bill Gates on This is Working © LinkedIn Bill Gates on This is Working

There was one word that Bill Gates kept using on Wednesday’s This is Working that I think does more than anything to explain his disappointment over governments’ reactions to the coronavirus pandemic — and why he’s positive the global economy will stay smothered well into 2021: Exponential.

Unlike heart disease, cancer, car accidents or any of the other leading causes of death — you probably saw the charts in the early days of lockdowns — the virus spreads exponentially. The particles from one infected person sneezing, talking, singing can infect 2 to 2.5 more people, who each spread it to 2+ more. (You can see what those exponential curves look like in the real data of states and county cases found here.) Quarantine that initial spreader and you’re in good shape. But if you wait, you get where we are in the U.S. — with enforced, economy-destroying social distancing to stop the spikes.

“Well, it's a mistake not to have the entire country take these extreme measures,” said Gates, in our discussion. “It's understandable that people find this shocking. They're not used to the exponential growth of a respiratory transmitted virus. They haven't spent time, looking like at the model that I showed in the TED Talk where you had 30 million deaths and $3 trillion of economic damage just from that one event if you weren't prepared for it. [Gates gave a now prescient speech in 2015 called “The next outbreak; we’re not ready.”] So it takes time to get used to, but once somebody educates you about it, you're going to shut down. It's just a question of whether you do it after your cases have grown or before they've grown. You know, parts of the country have low enough cases that they can have way less deaths per person than the other other parts of the country if they act very, very soon.”

The other option, Gates says: That we stop people from being able to travel country to country, state to state or county to county. “But as long as we're allowing movement, we're all in this together.”

Over 20 minutes, Gates answered questions from LinkedIn members about the prospect for a vaccine — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has already invested over $100 million on therapeutics and testing, and it's funding factories that are developing 7 vaccines (most of which Gates recognizes won’t work) — and what implications the pandemic will have on our economy and our interactions.

Some highlights:

On returning to normal:

“We can open up in certain ways hopefully in the United State by early June if things go well. But it won't be where you're doing large public gatherings or even filling up a restaurant. It'll be semi-normal until that vaccine is out there in billions of doses...

I do think that things like running factories, doing construction, going back to school — those things can be done. Whether or not large gatherings like the sport event [happen]... I'm doubtful that some things [return] because the economic benefit they create relative to disease risk may make them not appropriate."

On when we'll see a vaccine:

“It's actually surprisingly hard to make a vaccine. Typically it takes 5 years… There's about a hundred efforts in the world of which about 8 to 10 are very promising. And we have to back all of these...

But sadly, even going full speed and with the right indemnification, taking a little bit of risk on side effects, and building the manufacturing in parallel — and backing all the leading companies to build manufacturing, not even knowing which one will prove to be safe and efficacious. Even doing all of that, you still get to this 18 months. Which is unfortunate because until you've got that vaccine widely used, life will still not be back to normal.”

On the economic and societal impact of the pandemic:

"We've done a lot of things to the economy here. I mean, it's necessary, but it's very radical. We've cut off the supply of goods, but we've also created a drop in wealth and an increase in uncertainty and a sense of should I go out? You know, will people want to go and travel? Will they want to go to restaurants? Will they even think, you know, buying a new home is an appropriate thing? So even once the government is saying these activities are OK, we can't expect the demand side to reemerge overnight..."

On the role of government

"The government is called on here to step up. The government did not do its duty to prepare for this well in advance, but now people are focused on it and we can see different countries responding in different ways. The scale of the response is completely unprecedented. I mean, you've never had, you know, 10% of GDP-type responses. It's great that that's been done, but will it really reach the people in need? We're still, you know, kind of designing this as we go… This is very unfair in terms of how it impacts people who already had had a lot less wealth.”

On what stays virtual and what doesn't:

“There are a few things like business trips that I doubt will ever go back. I mean, there will still be business trips, but you know, less. In the case of high school, I think social activity, you know, making friends, hanging out, that you get by being there physically, that's totally irreplaceable. And so even though on a pure learning basis, if you have an internet connection and a device and you have a teacher who is really good at presenting the material and it's not a lab-based cost, yes, it's impressive how people are rising to the occasion and for a subset of students making that work. But I do think, certainly for K-12, we want to go back to having those kids together, you know, learning how to socialize, spending time with their friends.”

I hope you’ll join us for future interviews by following LinkedIn Editors.

You can also subscribe to the This is Working podcast on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Let me know in the comments who else you’d like to hear — and how you’re taking action today. As Gates said, “We're all in this together.”

Dan Roth and Bill Gates © LinkedIn Dan Roth and Bill Gates

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