Bill Gates is one of the richest people in the world. He's also one of the leading philanthropists in the world, so people are paying attention now that he's issued a grave warning about the latest coronavirus outbreak and what that could mean for the economy.
Speaking by video at a TED Connects event on Tuesday, Gates said that he believes the world should shut down and people should self-isolate for six to ten weeks, according to CNBC, which viewed the presentation. And while he acknowledged that such a lockdown would be "disastrous" to the economy, he questioned whether we have any other choice.
"It's very tough to say to people, 'Hey keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner, we want you to keep spending because there's some politician that thinks GDP growth is what counts," Gates said, according to CNBC. "It's hard to tell people during an epidemic ... that they should go about things knowing their activity is spreading this disease."
It's a conundrum that has been discussed in more detail in recent days, with President Donald Trump suggesting he might want to reopen the country and get people back to work by the middle of April, and epidemiologists and other experts suggesting such a move could overrun the public health system and endanger more lives.
For companies, the comments from Gates, who has become one of the leading voices on public health, could be concerning to say the least. On the one hand, there is the possibility of keeping the country closed for another couple months and the economic fallout that could come with it. On the other hand is the possibilty of putting people's lives in danger.
That, of course, underscores the enormous need for companies to have contingency plans in place if and when the economy shuts down, as it has right now. Using technology for telecommuting and finding solutions for keeping employees connected is critical.
It also means that companies shouldn't necessarily expect to be out of the woods anytime soon. After all, if Gates is correct, this difficult time could continue for the foreseeable future.
Worst of all, Gates says, this could have been avoided. He argued in his TED presentation that the U.S. didn't work quickly enough in January, when it first learned of Covid-19. Even worse, he said we're still unprepared if another pandemic hits.