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Gates Urges 'Tough Medicine' in U.S. Shutdown Debate

Bill Gates has waded into the ongoing discussion over how the United States can curb the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic without sacrificing the health of its citizens.

On one side are those urging a massive public health response to save millions of people from death; on the other are those looking for less extreme measures to soften the unprecedented economic hardship that the shutdowns, self-isolation and social distancing are causing.

Gates occupies a unique vantage point in this debate. At Microsoft, Gates built a fortune that has ranked him as the first or second wealthiest person in the world for decades, and saw him move in the most elite financial circles. And since 2000, he and his wife have operated the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charity. Through the foundation, Gates has made himself one of the foremost experts on global health issues and has been raising concerns about pandemics for years.

Thursday marked something of a flashpoint in the debate. The number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States surpassed the total in China, making the United States the country with the most cases of the disease in the world. On the same day, nearly 3.28 million workers sought unemployment benefits, smashing previous weekly records.

Pushing hard to relax even the patchwork shutdowns enacted by various state and local governments so far, President Trump on Wednesday said he hoped to see America "roaring" back to business around Easter, April 12. A Trump letter to governors on Thursday also promised a plan to classify individual counties into three risk levels and set response levels accordingly.

In a lengthy town hall-style interview on CNN Thursday night, Gates came down squarely on the side of the "tough medicine" of a robust public health response to what he termed a "terrible pandemic." Gates called for a national shutdown and argued that it needed to last six to 10 weeks.

"What's going on here is mind-blowing. Never in my lifetime have we had to change our behavior and had this drastic effect on the economy in order to save lives," Gates told CNN town hall hosts Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

"There are people who wish we didn't have to do that. That is fully understandable. This is some very tough medicine. But it's better to take the economic problem, where the economy can come back, than to allow it to spread throughout the country and take millions of deaths as the price that we have to pay here," Gates said.

The math doesn't add up for partial shutdowns, different measures for different counties or ending the shutdown before late May or early June, Gates argued.

"Having states go with different things or thinking you can do it county by county, that will not work. Cases will be exponentially growing anywhere you don't have a serious shutdown," he said. With inconsistent testing, porous county borders and a coronavirus that spreads by 33 percent per day, a seemingly low-risk county can jump quickly from 100 cases to thousands then tens of thousands.

Asked how long he expected to be at home with his family, Gates said, "There is some uncertainty about this, but my view has been that through May, unfortunately, the schools are not likely to come back for this...school year. That's about the range, late May, early June, that we'll probably have to be like this."

One of the challenges of a complete shutdown is that its effectiveness will keep cases down, and create temptation to lift the restrictions. Aside from the lives saved, however, a major upside of a six- to 10-week shutdown is the ability to do it once.

"I do see it coming to an end, and if we do it properly we'll only be shut down, in the U.S., for that one period of time," Gates said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 27, 2020 at 8:18 AM


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