Bill and Melinda Gates are the fairy godfather and godmother of this pandemic, according to epidemiologists. Not only did he predict that there would be a pandemic and she worries that it would have a devastating effect on family life, unlike most of the super-rich they put in more than $1.75 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help to combat Covid-19 and have spent the past year ensuring that any new vaccines can quickly be produced globally. Yet they are seen by conspiracy theorists as wicked witches plotting to overtake the world.
It must be frustrating, but the couple—who are locked down in Seattle with their youngest child—try to ignore the criticism. The two workaholics say they read more and meditate in the mornings, but when they have finished saving the world “pretty much all we want to do after dinner is binge-watch something”, says Bill.
Could he ever have imagined that lakhs of people would lose their lives in countries such as America and Britain, with their advanced medical care? “I talked about a pandemic that kills more than ten million people, so while this is incredibly bad, it could have been worse,” he says. “What I did not realise was that the economic, educational and mental health effects would be so bad. I put $3 trillion for the economic cost in my predictions, and we are easily at five times that level already.”
Bill lost his father during the crisis. “He died from Alzheimer’s; he did not get any exposure to Covid,” says the Microsoft co-founder. “We were very careful about that, but it is still very hard not to be able to come together as a family [to grieve].”
Although he and Melinda take it in turns to “throw something in the microwave” for meals, all his energies are focused on the vaccine rollout, which he finds exciting. He recognises India’s role in being a vaccine provider for the world. “People may be surprised to hear these Indian vaccine factories are bigger than the western vaccine factories,” he says.
The Gates Foundation has invested billions of dollars in ensuring that vaccines are spread more fairly around the world. “I am glad people are starting to think about vaccine equity,” says Bill. “Fortunately, we do have an agreement with India that they will allow their vaccines to go to other developing countries in parallel with domestic supply. It looks like a high percentage of the vaccines will work. Both the UK and the US—and other countries, in the long run—have more vaccine than they need. The big issue is who gets the vaccines in 2021… by 2022 the world will have plenty.”
Everything depends on take-up, and anti-vaxxers might prevent some people from coming forward—their nutty conspiracy theories that it is Bill’s malevolent wish to microchip the world through vaccines have spread almost as fast as Covid. “It is a completely new thing for me,” he says, sounding bemused. “If you told me a year ago that [Dr Anthony Fauci, the American immunologist] and I would be the most mentioned people in terms of evil plots, I would not have expected that. It is intense—it varies a lot from country to country; there is quite a variety of wild theories. I hope that the facts about the vaccine—and the safety and the heroes who helped to create it—can get ahead of these ‘somebody evil is plotting to take over the world’ explanations.”
He is such a logical person that he must have found it hard to be at the centre of so many illogical accusations. “Everyone has critics, and Melinda and I intentionally picked vaccines and birth control [to focus on],” he says. “Both are controversial, but we wanted to save millions of lives. I do not regret predicting this pandemic, I just wish I had been more effective in getting the right investments made.”
The virus has had a huge effect on inequality, though, and he must feel concerned. “Yes, countries should look at how they tax the rich,” he says. “There is room to be more progressive without destroying the incentives that lead to innovation.”
Bill is surprisingly optimistic about how soon we might get through the pandemic. “By the summer, the vaccination levels in rich countries will be very high. And in the northern hemisphere the seasonality effect will have reversed from where it is right now,” he says. “So, you will start to see very low [numbers of] cases. Hopefully, we can motivate people to get the vaccination levels up, maybe even to 80 per cent. We may have to ask people to take the third dose to help with these variants.”
Economically, “the pressure to go back is very high— there will be some opening up in the summer, there will still be the question of how much we ask for masks [to be worn] and what we do about big public events or crowded bars, but certainly schools, manufacturing will fully resume. Tourism is tricky because of your ability to prove that you have been vaccinated. So, there will be footnotes, but it will be very different than it is right now.”
However, he warns that we cannot afford to be complacent. “All this vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories mean it is not guaranteed we will get to the high levels of coverage that we need,” he says. Melinda is concerned rather than angered by the lurid fantasies. “I am sad about it for the people who are going to lose their lives because of that disinformation,” she says. “Those conspiracy theories have led people to do things that are not right for their health.”
What worries her most is the disproportionate impact that Covid is having on women. “Women [constitute] 39 per cent of the labour force around the world and yet they have accounted for 50 per cent of the pandemic-related job losses. That is tragic,” she says. “And they are struggling to either find childcare or take care of their infants to try to keep them doing their homework.”
She warns that, after years of progress towards equality, things have “gone backwards” for women, even though the United States now has its first female vice president. “No longer can gender be this side issue that is nice to do when we get to it,” Melinda says. “Gender is the central issue—it is the infrastructure of society.”
There are, she says, “enlightened men” out there. “I have had several conversations with President Joe Biden,” she says. “He was a dad who lost his wife and daughter and raised two sons while he was a senator. He commuted between Delaware and DC. He knows what that is like. You talk to [the Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau. He sees the struggle.”
What about Boris Johnson? “Well, I think everybody can learn,” she says. “It is going to take civil society putting pressure on him to do the right thing... even if it does not come naturally to him.”
Bill and Melinda met in 1987 when she joined Microsoft as a product manager. He asked if she could go out “two weeks from tonight”; she told him he was “not spontaneous enough”. So, the next time he rang he asked her to go out that night.
They married in 1994, and on their silver wedding anniversary she posted a video on Facebook of him trying to cut the cake after their marriage—he is deep in concentration, while she is bent over double in laughter. “We told you it was time to cut the cake,” she wrote. “You thought that meant you needed to cut a slice for everyone and did some astonishingly quick math to calculate exactly how big each slice should be. I thought my heart was full that night, but the last 25 years have taught me just how full a heart can get.”
The secret of a happy marriage is, she believes, balance. Melinda gave up work briefly when their children—Jennifer, Rory and Phoebe (now 24, 21 and 18)—were young, but she and Bill have always been meticulous about sharing domestic duties. “You have to start in your home, and look at who is doing what and make sure that everybody takes on more work,” she says. “I am a terrible cook, Bill’s a terrible cook, but we can both push the buttons on the microwave. We can both do the dishes. Bill is expected to do things around the house.”
Now, she argues, could be a time when expectations and priorities start to shift, within and between the generations. “I am seeing unbelievable resilience in young people,” she says. “It is tough to be schooled at home and not to be able to go out with your teenage friends or play on the football team. I would not wish on anybody graduating during a pandemic because getting a job is just harder right now in this economy. But I am so impressed with the teenagers that I see doing the social distancing. They are being more selfless. We are seeing applications to medical schools in the US up by 18 per cent. This [situation] may enliven them to do something different than they might otherwise have done in their career.”
The end of the Donald Trump era has, she suggests, created a new, more positive mood around the world. “I was pleased to see that we were having new leadership—sensible, proper policy with good values,” she says. “There is more optimism and more hope, partly because of the new administration and also, quite frankly, because the vaccine is being rolled out. I think we are at a turning point. We still have some dark days ahead, but we are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.”