Bill Gates Says the Pandemic Has Set Us Back 25 Years. What It Will Take to Change That

The Gates Foundation released its annual  Goalkeepers Report, an assessment of progress in a variety of development goals determined by world leaders. Generally, the report details positive developments that occurred over the previous year. This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the report is different. 

It starts with this sobering statement:

COVID-19 has killed more than 850,000 people. It has plunged the world into a recession that is likely to get worse. And many countries are bracing for another surge in cases.

In past editions of the Goalkeepers Report–almost every time we have opened our mouths or put pen to paper, in fact–we have celebrated decades of historic progress in fighting poverty and disease. But we have to confront the current reality with candor: This progress has now stopped.

If you’re a business owner, or really any type of leader, that’s a problem that should concern you. The report details a variety of areas where that progress has stopped, from vaccinations to economic development, but the overall assessment is that the way we’ve handled the pandemic, especially here in the U.S., has set back much of the progress we’ve seen over the past 25 years. 

“Our data partner, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), found that in 2020 coverage is dropping to levels last seen in the 1990s,” the report concludes of vaccinations. “In other words, we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks. “

“The COVID-19 financial loss is twice as great as the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008,” Gates writes. “The last time this many countries were in recession at once was in 1870, literally two lifetimes ago”

While that’s not good news by any measurement, the report does give some insight into what it will take to reverse this trend. In fact, it leaves no room for ambiguity about the level of collaboration required to get past the current pandemic, and get back to whatever ‘normal’ looks like in the future.

“How bad the pandemic gets and how long it lasts is largely within the world’s control,” Gates writes. “Ultimately, businesses and governments must really believe that the future is not a zero-sum contest in which winners win only when losers lose. It is a cooperative endeavor in which we all make progress together.”

Specifically, there are three things that will make a difference moving forward, each requiring a collaborative approach:

Before you might be tempted to dismiss Gates’s suggestions as unrealistic, it’s worth remembering that The Gates Foundation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into funding vaccines, knowing that many of them won’t work. According to Gates, “the key to developing new vaccines, especially in the early stages, is to pursue as many candidates as possible.” 

There’s actually a valuable lesson here. It’s often tempting to focus on the “one thing” we think will get us where we need to go, and pour all of our resources into that. In reality, however, success rarely works that way, especially when dealing with challenges as complex as battling a global pandemic. 

Instead, Gates suggests putting resources behind as many options as possible, and working collaboratively to share success. That strategy mirrors how Gates has long approached difficult challenges–by asking who else has had success in this area, and then asking what he can learn from that success.  

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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