It has become a familiar scene: influential leaders in the scientific and medical fields speaking to virtual audiences in the tens of millions about the dangers of a rampant, deadly epidemic. In one case, however, the details are surprisingly different.
This time, the speaker discussing global disruptions from a highly infectious virus was Bill Gates. The year was 2015.
It has been five years since the billionaire tech philanthropist went on a campaign to talk to large media outlets about what he saw as the biggest threat to human life – greater than war or terror attacks. And while the current coronavirus strain was not included in his ominous prediction, the widespread turmoil in markets and economies was.
“All the supply chains would break down. There would be a lot of panic – many of our systems would be overloaded,” Gates said of a hypothetical flu-like epidemic to the audience.
For the past two decades, he and his foundation have largely focused on preventing viruses and diseases through vaccinations and sustainable treatment. Despite some of the more precise details of his prediction being off, his main point remains – the world is not adequately prepared to fight a major outbreak.
Weeks into the official COVID-19 pandemic, Gates returned to the same TEDx platform from 2015 to detail what can be done now. Using many of the same points as public health officials, his virtual talk seemed to reverberate around the internet as the ultimate “I told you so,” given the stunning similarities between his early predictions and the current crisis.
Because of the consistently evolving climate around COVID-19, it has proven difficult to predict the long-term effects of the virus, even for global experts. The immediate changes are clearer. Businesses, from small to large, are reducing or halting spending. The majority of the population is experiencing a new work or education environment. People, young and old, are being more cautious about their health and sanitation practices. Financial markets have been intensely volatile. There are even significant reductions in everything from car accidents to cut-flower purchases as a result of stay-at-home orders.
For many of those who live far from where they go to work or school, the communities they leave are bracing for heightened instability.
Jacob VanHaaster, sophomore mechanical engineering major at the U.S. Naval Academy, said dealing with the logistics of the pandemic has left everything uncertain. For VanHaaster, who is at home in California for the foreseeable future, attending classes and other functions in another time zone is a daily challenge.
“I may be here for months. They’re talking about starting next semester online,” VanHaaster said.
Not only do people have to worry about their health, but they also have to keep extra tabs on their finances. Dr. Bob Namvar, professor of economics at California Baptist University, said there is certainly reason to be anxious about the financial system.
“I think if it continues until the end of this year, we will experience a great recession,” Namvar said.
That prediction falls in line with many others in the economic fields, so long as the infection “curve” is flattened soon.
Namvar did note that, as with crises such the 9/11 attacks and the 2007-2008 recession, the economy can recover even with just a few months of solid monetary and fiscal policies. It falls into the hands of every person to make conscious, careful and healthy decisions to make that recovery happen sooner – many are depending on it.