In COVID-19 era, even Bill Gates admits he feels as if he’s waking up in a nightmare every morning

Alan Boyle
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates discusses the repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak with Khan Academy founder Sal Khan during a “Daily Homeroom” live-streamed session. (Khan Academy via YouTube)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates may be one of the world’s richest individuals, but even he sometimes finds it hard to cope with the huge social changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I never lived through anything this dramatic,” Gates admitted today during a “Daily Homeroom” live-streamed chat with Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a non-profit online learning venture.

That may seem ironic, given that the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been working for years on efforts to tamp down diseases, and that Gates himself issued a warning about a global virus outbreak in a prescient 2015 TED talk. But now that it’s happened, Gates isn’t immune to the outbreak’s effects.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

“Everyone’s lives are almost completely upended,” he told Khan. “The normal things I do — talking about polio eradication, going in to meetings at the foundation, traveling to meet with scientists — that’s all gone. When I wake up in the morning, I think, ‘Is this a nightmare? Are we really in this different world where coronavirus is the top priority?’ ”

Gates said he’s been doing lots of online meetings — using the video conferencing platform provided by Microsoft Teams, of course. “I’m learning about the rooms people have in their house, and cats jumping up on their desk,” he joked.

He’s also getting out his messages about slowing and stopping the virus’ spread in lots of public online chats — not only with the Khan Academy, but with “The Daily Show,” CNN, TED, Reddit and other outlets. Face-to-face contact, however, is strictly limited in line with the requirements for social distancing.

“I don’t get to see many people beyond my family in person,” he said.

When will it all be over? And what will life be like once people start coming out of homes and hospitals? Here are eight key lessons to take away from the “Daily Homeroom” chat:

  • Gates said it’s likely to take a month for the exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases levels off, and another month for the number of active cases to start coming down. Rapid and widespread testing for the virus will be key. “You could get to a point where, because you’re targeting the testing and getting quick results, you do start to open up … where kids go to school and people go back to their jobs,” he said.
  • Even then, there will have to be limits. “It’s not normal. They don’t do sports events or big gatherings. That will wait until [we have] the vaccine, but we’d like — if things go well, and the numbers will drive it — we’d like to see that ability to open up somewhat by ideally early summer,” Gates said.
  • Large gatherings might have to be put on hold for as much as a year longer, to give time for adequate testing of a vaccine that can be administered worldwide. “It’ll take a while to get back into the ‘let’s go take a vacation, let’s go buy a new house’ type of mode,” Gates said.
  • That more cautious mindset seems likely to lead to “the biggest shrinkage of GDP in any of our lifetimes,” Gates said. “We are in uncharted territory. … Eventually the economy will be bigger than it was before we got into this, but the shrinkage we’re seeing in these few months is completely unprecedented, and there are human lives behind that,” he said.
  • Gates said the long-lasting social impact is likely to be greater than that of the 2008 economic downturn, and arguably could reach the scale of the Depression and World War II. But it’s hard to predict specifics. “There are simple things, like, ‘Will people take less business trips? Will people be afraid of foreign travel?’ I am concerned: Will this drive us together within the country and across countries to solve a global problem like this? Or will it have us say, ‘OK, we just need to hunker down and isolate at various tribal or national levels?’ “
  • Examples of scientific and technological cooperation in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic give Gates hope. “Thank God the internet looks to have the resilience,” he said. “It’s a tool for us to constantly see what’s going on, have these collaborations.”
  • But Gates acknowledged that going all-digital “is going to create disparities” for communities that aren’t so well connected. The problem is particularly acute for schools that have been forced to cancel face-to-face classes. “Losing three months of learning — there’s a huge cost to that,” Gates said. “It’s hard to put a dollar number on it, but no matter what grade you’re in, it’s a huge setback.”
  • If there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, it may be that we’ll never be as unprepared as we were when Gates issued his warning in 2015. “This time, governments will act on it,” he said. “We will get the right tools in place. … Hopefully some families are drawn closer together, the idea of volunteering to help out people, giving philanthropically. We’re all in this together, even on a global basis. The rest of your life, you will think of this event and how you responded to it as a defining thing. And I’m seeing many people rise to the occasion to help out others or to use their skills to try and bring this to an end.”

More from GeekWire: