Bill Gates has published a fascinating post over on his blog, GatesNotes, which looks at where the COVID-19 pandemic goes from here. In the post, Gates explores everything from the virus’s exponential growth to treatment and vaccine timelines. The TL;DR version of it is: There’s a lot still to be done, and the effects of the pandemic will go on for a long time.
But one of the most interesting parts of Gates’s post is when he delves into what people living in developed countries can expect life to be like as they enter the second phase of the pandemic. Gates describes this phase as the “opening up” phase, in which life resumes a “semi-normal” status. Gates expects this phase to begin in the next two months:
People can go out, but not as often, and not to crowded places. Picture restaurants that only seat people at every other table, and airplanes where every middle seat is empty. Schools are open, but you can’t fill a stadium with 70,000 people. People are working some and spending some of their earnings, but not as much as they were before the pandemic. In short, times are abnormal but not as abnormal as during the first phase.
As for which businesses should be first in line to open during this “semi-normal” phase, Gates says schools should be a priority—sporting events not so much:
The basic principle should be to allow activities that have a large benefit to the economy or human welfare but pose a small risk of infection. But as you dig into the details and look across the economy, the picture quickly gets complicated. It is not as simple as saying “you can do X, but not Y.” The modern economy is far too complex and interconnected for that . . .
Schools offer a big benefit and should be a priority. Large sporting and entertainment events probably will not make the cut for a long time; the economic benefit of the live audience doesn’t measure up to the risk of spreading the infection. Other activities fall into a gray area, such as church services or a high school soccer game with a few dozen people on the sidelines.
But Gates also notes that even workplaces that fall into the highest priority will face challenges in everything from logistics to worker safety. He points out that while restaurants can relatively easily keep diners the recommended 6 feet apart, they might not have the food to serve them if their ingredient supply chain remains disrupted. Another issue: How do you keep employees and suppliers safe on their commute to work?
Finally, Gates says there’s another factor that casts uncertainty around the “semi-normal” reopening phase: human nature. “Some people will be naturally reluctant to go out even once the government says it is okay,” Gates writes. “Others will take the opposite view—they will assume that the government is being overly cautious and start bucking the rules.” The former could exacerbate economic hardship, while the latter could exacerbate harm to public health.
Ominously, Gates ends his piece by comparing the current pandemic to World War II, saying it is the defining event of our lives.
Melinda and I grew up learning that World War II was the defining moment of our parents’ generation. In a similar way, the COVID-19 pandemic—the first modern pandemic—will define this era. No one who lives through Pandemic I will ever forget it. And it is impossible to overstate the pain that people are feeling now and will continue to feel for years to come.
That’s something we can probably all agree with.