The Covid-19 pandemic has set back public health efforts by years. But in an interview, the tech philanthropist expressed hope about new avenues for foreign aid
By Donald G. McNeil Jr.
On Monday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released the fourth of its annual Goalkeeper reports, which track the slow but steady progress the world has made toward more than a dozen health-related goals set forth by the United Nations in 2015.
This year’s was unrelentingly grim. The coronavirus pandemic has scorched away years of work: More families are in dire poverty, malnutrition is increasing, far fewer children are getting immunized.
The assessment comes as the United States, stung harder by the virus than any other country, is retreating from the global health stage and seems focused primarily on saving itself. Could it ever return to its role as the world’s leader in both competence and generosity? In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Gates devoted a half-hour to explaining why he was optimistic that it would.
“It’s my disposition,” he said. “Plus, I’ve got to call these people up and make the pitch to them that this really makes sense — and I totally, totally believe it makes sense.”
By “these people,” he was referring to leading figures in the White House and Congress, whom he has personally lobbied to do “this”: namely, add an extra $4 billion to the fiscal stimulus package now under debate in Congress so that poor countries can get Covid-19 vaccines.
Ultimately his goal is far more ambitious: to double American foreign aid from less than 0.25 percent of gross domestic product to 0.5 percent or more. He sees the pandemic as an opportunity to do that.
“As they say,” he added cheerily, “the U.S. government — after it’s tried every other thing — does the right thing.”
As he did in Silicon Valley while battling competitors and antitrust regulators, Mr. Gates can calculate his chances of success with a ruthless logic.
That has rarely been as true as it is now, as a once-in-a-century pandemic devastates the impoverished countries where he focuses his giving.
The damage has been wrought less by the virus — so far it has killed much smaller percentages of the populations of Asia and Africa than of the Americas and Western Europe — than by the economic impact, which has been far greater in countries where people and governments “have no spare reserves to draw on,” Mr. Gates said.
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