No one could have seen this coming? Coronavirus, I mean.
Hang on to your sorcerer’s hat, Nostradamus (h/t to Julian Fox), but a viral attack that would lay low an unprepared world was presented as a TED Talk in 2015.
By Billionaire Bill Gates.
The talk is less than 9 minutes and it takes him less than 30 seconds to identify the future killer of millions as a virus, like the Ebola virus we had survived a decade earlier. The threat to humanity is “Not missiles, but microbes,” he says. “We can build a really good response system” — but we did not.
And here is Kara Harris of USA Today fact-checking a claim that this had happened. There isn’t much more I can add to it.
“Based on the current coronavirus spread and reaction to it, Gates’ claim of lack of preparation looks to be true, even in the U.S.,” writes Harris.
That TED Talk followed the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but was contained there. It gave rise to the 1995 hit movie “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr. Because westerners were heroes, that lead to predictable griping among some black critics that it presented the “bwana syndrome” in which white paternalists are required to save benighted black men. Sigh.
Forget the movie. Why didn’t anyone listen to Gates?
Maybe because that was not his field of speciality, although everything he said made sense.
Maybe because he didn’t write a check for a billion to launch a medical corps he had proposed. (“Put your money where your mouth is, Bill,” I can hear someone whispering. That is unfair, but life is unfair. That’s why Jimmy Carter didn’t get a second term and why I wasn’t born rich.)
More to the point, I think, is that humans, as a species, tend to ignore warnings and we are not motivated by theory, but by disaster. We are cheap.
That’s why dams get built after a flood, not before, even though a flood was easily predictable.
That’s why Pearl Harbor happened, even though the Japanese ambitions were very clear.
“They wouldn’t dare,” some thought.
“How could it happen to us, we are clean and scientifically advanced,” some thought about epidemics. So now we are fighting from behind. As we have many times before.
Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”
Churchill knew us, perhaps because he was half us. His mother was born in Brooklyn and Churchill deeply loved his heritage and America.
He had warned of the dangers of a rising Nazism as Gates warned of an epidemic.
But they were among many oracles and prophets who get things wrong. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he was first viewed as just another in an endless line of prophets.
Our challenge is to winnow out the prophets who are right — and then act on what they say.
Will it happen? I don’t know. I’m not a prophet.