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Egan: Bill Gates, the most intersting man in the world

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“It tires me to talk to rich men,” said Teddy Roosevelt, himself a product of wealth. “You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing. But as a rule, they don’t know anything outside their own businesses.”

Had T.R. spent time with Bill Gates, the polymath who predicted the pandemic in a TED Talk, he likely would have made an exception.

Gates is everywhere these days, a lavender-sweatered Mister Rogers for the curious and quarantined. With the United States surrendering in the global war against a disease without borders, Gates has filled the void. The U.S. is isolated, pitied, scorned. Gates, by one measure, is the most admired man in the world.

Beyond the $300 million that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given to blunt the spread of the virus, Gates has made himself a spokesman for science. It needs one. While President Donald Trump spouts life-threatening nonsense, Gates calmly explains how a spike protein of coronavirus fits into the urgent hunt for a vaccine.

He’s the prophet who warned in 2015 that a pandemic was a greater risk to humankind than nuclear war. Five years before that, he challenged the world health community to commit to a decade of vaccines and anted up $10 billion to get it started.

In 2018, he took the stage in Beijing with a jar of human poop. This, at the Reinvented Toilet Expo, was his way of stressing that about 500,000 young children die every year from diseases linked to poor sanitation — a problem his foundation has tackled.

He appears on both Fox News and MSNBC. He talks regularly with Dr. Anthony Fauci and peddles pandemic notes to Stephen Colbert. He recommends “A Gentleman in Moscow,” the Amor Towles novel about a hotel prisoner in Soviet Russia, on his personal blog, where he also praises the honesty of “These Truths,” Jill Lepore’s magisterial telling of our nation’s history.

Do I need to know that he and Melinda enjoy “This is Us,” the sap-heavy television series? No. But as they’ve already given away more than $50 billion as self-described “impatient optimists working to reduce inequality,” I’ll take their gloss on pop culture over an update on Kim Kardashian’s lip gloss.

Big Philanthropy can be about diplomatic power and muscle under the guise of charity. But there’s an inescapable truth about the world’s second-richest man’s decision to give away his fortune: The Gates Foundation has helped save millions of lives.

With the coronavirus, which Gates has called “the most dramatic thing ever in my lifetime by a lot,” his approach is to inject a turbocharger of money at many different levels. The foundation calls it “catalytic philanthropy.” To speed up the steps needed to get a vaccine to the world, for example, he’s funding the construction of factories to manufacture seven possible coronavirus vaccines, even if most of them fail.

Many tycoons tend to get miserly and coldhearted as they age. Gates has evolved in the opposite direction. Early on, the co-founder of Microsoft was arrogant, insufferable, whiny and socially distant when that was considered offensive — a monopoly capitalist without the imagination of his rival and friend Steve Jobs.

His initial efforts at philanthropy — giving computers away to underserved libraries and schools — opened him up to criticism (largely unfair) that the donations were part of a scheme to expand the market for Microsoft products. Gates soldiered on, making himself an expert in infectious diseases. He helped to create a market for lifesaving drugs that are often ignored by Big Pharma.

It’s uncanny how spot on he was in that 2015 speech. The greatest threat to the world was “not missiles but microbes,” he said. “You have a virus where people feel well enough while they’re infected so they get on a plane,” he said.

The first major U.S. outbreak, in a nursing home just 11 miles from Gates’ house near Seattle, made him regret that he had not spoken out even more. He had warned Trump, just before he took office, of the seismic dangers of a pandemic.

Now, of course, Gates is the boogeyman in the fevered minds of many a delusional Trumper. The global lunacy community — anti-vaxxers, science-deniers, Russian agents — has spread so many conspiracy theories regarding Gates that misinformation about him is now among the most widespread of all coronavirus falsehoods.

The crackpots who have targeted Gates include Roger Stone, Laura Ingraham and anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Would you get in a lifeboat with that trio?

The world needs a strong American response precisely because the disease has become a huge American problem. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the United States accounts for more than 30% of the planet’s coronavirus cases. When Trump snubs the World Health Organization, he hurts American citizens.

The safer route for a billionaire trying to avoid social media predators is idle-rich vacuity. But Gates, who had urged nations to simulate “germ games not war games,” will not sit this one out from the safety of a yacht. He’s smart enough to see that this virus does not pick sides.

Timothy Egan is a columnist for the New York Times.

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