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Bill and Melinda Gates say ‘shocking’ US pandemic response is due to ‘terrible leadership’

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‘This has been a mismanaged situation every step of the way’

Melinda Gates and Bill Gates.
Image: GatesNotes.com

America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “shocking” and “unbelievable,” with matters made much worse by “terrible leadership,” said Bill and Melinda Gates in a series of interviews this week.

The couple condemned the United States for bungling its pandemic response. They criticized not only the Trump administration for its inaction, but also national bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for making key errors over the past year.

“You know, this has been a mismanaged situation every step of the way,” Bill Gates told Stat News. “It’s shocking. It’s unbelievable — the fact that we would be among the worst in the world.”

Speaking to Axios, Melinda Gates said the only reason America was facing such a higher death toll than other developed countries was a “lack of leadership.” As Melinda put it: “We’ve had terrible leadership on this issue quite frankly. And science should never be politicized. Science is about getting at the truth.” When asked if any other variable accounted for the impact of COVID-19 in the US compared to other developed countries, Melinda said it was “our leadership and response” that was to blame.

The Gates identified a number of mistakes in America’s strategy. Bill Gates criticized the CDC for creating an “overly complicated test” for the virus, and said that commercial labs should only be paid to process tests if they deliver their results within 24 hours (a target the US rarely reaches, says Stat News). Taking any longer gives the virus more time to spread, said Bill. “You get to write apology notes to the people you infected in the meantime.”

Melinda Gates, meanwhile, said it was a “tragedy” that the Trump administration announced plans to cut all funding for the World Health Organization (WHO). She noted that the organization was “not perfect,” but that cutting ties with an agency designed to coordinate response to global health crises during a pandemic was nonsensical. “You just don’t pull out of WHO in the middle of a crisis,” she said. After the US government, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the biggest funder of WHO, accounting for 10 percent of its budget.

“We’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks”

The interviews contain the harshest criticisms yet offered by the Gates of America’s pandemic response, and coincide with the release of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2020 Goalkeepers report. This annual report tracks the world’s progress towards the United Nation’s key goals, which include the elimination of poverty and hunger, and the widening of access to healthcare and education.

Usually, the report finds slow and steady progress towards these goals. But this year the pandemic has pushed global progress into reverse. Schools have closed, malnutrition is on the rise, poverty has increased globally, and vaccination levels are falling dramatically.

“In the blink of an eye, a health crisis became an economic crisis, a food crisis, a housing crisis, a political crisis,” says the report. “Everything collided with everything else.”

Forecast of global rates of extreme poverty for 2020.
Image: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The pandemic has been an economic disaster, leading to job losses and drops in income. This has severe knock-on effects, meaning families can’t put food on the table, while young people have to give up educations that might change their future in order to scrape enough money together to survive. The report says that the financial loss caused by the pandemic is twice as great as the “Great Recession” of 2008, and that the last time so many countries were in recession was in 1870 during the “Long Depression.”

In terms of the number of people in extreme poverty worldwide (defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day) the report found that figures had increased for the first time in 20 years. Extreme poverty is forecasted to rise by roughly 7.1 percent in 2020, meaning around 37 million more people will fall into this category compared to last year.

Access to vaccines, which the report says is a “good proxy measure for how health systems are functioning,” has also been affected. Last year, the percentage of children worldwide who received all vaccines recommended by the WHO reached over 80 percent (up from just five percent in the 1970s). This year that figure has fallen back to around 70 percent, in line with vaccination coverage in the 1990s. As the report states: “In other words, we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks.”

Reversing the damage requires global vaccination

Not all of these effects are permanent, of course, and many of the trends described in the 2020 Goalkeepers report can be reversed. But the Gates say that will require a global response to the pandemic that focuses on vaccination and returning economies to normal.

In an op-ed written for The Financial Times, the Gates make the case that a key part of the global vaccine response should be equality. If richer countries horde vaccines, as opposed to distributing them to more populous nations, the effect will be a longer pandemic, a greater number of deaths, and more sustained economic hardship.

If vaccines are given out to countries in proportion to their population, some 61 percent of deaths can be averted. If they go to high-income countries first, that figure falls to 33 percent, say the Gates based on models created by Northeastern University’s Mobs Lab.

“The pandemic and the economic recession are global, and national solutions are inadequate. Borders are meaningless to pathogens and becoming less consequential to economies with each passing year,” write the pair. They add that there is “no distinction between the moral argument and the self-interested one” for equitable distribution of vaccines. “Fair global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines would end the pandemic faster for everyone. And for every month we shave off, the world saves roughly $500 billion, according to the IMF,” they write.

Speaking to The New York Times, Bill Gates said that America’s current position on vaccine development “looks selfish.” The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has seen the government pay out $11 billion to six pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine, says the Times, and in return the US has secured at least 100 million doses from each firm. But just three of these programs need to be successful to immunize America, and excess vaccines could be distributed worldwide to help end the global struggle against COVID-19.

Bill notes, though, that it may be tough to persuade the US to take this course of action, especially as American taxpayers have already paid for two-thirds of the cost of clinical trials and manufacturing of the vaccines. “You’re not going to succeed in getting the US to treat itself as just a random 5 percent of the world’s population,” he told the Times.

One other way forward, says Bill, is to increase the amount of foreign aid the US offers other countries. Although America is the world’s largest donor of foreign aid in absolute terms, it only contributes 0.25 percent of its total GDP, compared to three times as much in the UK and Netherlands, and four times as much in Sweden and Norway. Bill says the pandemic is an opportunity to double that figure to 0.5 percent of US GDP — a change that would have a huge impact in repairing the damage caused by the pandemic.

“As they say,” Bill told the Times, paraphrasing a famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill, “the US government — after it’s tried every other thing — does the right thing.”