The People v. Bill Gates

Linsey McGoey

Bill and Melinda Gates have asked for privacy after their divorce announcement, but a storm of attention seems more likely. Interest in their marital arrangements isn’t merely prurient. They are public figures and their personal lives have political ramifications. The urgent question in global health circles is what will happen to their powerhouse foundation in the wake of their split. Large amounts of funding hang in the balance.

Even before the divorce, public opinion was shifting. A year ago, many people were sympathetic to Bill Gates, and even outraged on his behalf, when he became the target of conspiracy theories spread by QAnon and other groups, suggesting the pandemic was all part of a secret plan to implant microchips in people. More recently, though, as his opposition to waiving patents on vaccines has become better known, it isn’t only the conspiracists who are angry with him.

People are once again asking – as they did when he was at the helm of Microsoft during its anti-trust legal battles – whether it’s right for one private individual to wield so much economic and political power. For two decades the question seemed to have gone away: after all, how could anyone dislike the world’s most charitable man?

But as I argued a few years ago in No Such Thing As a Free Gift, Gates has long deserved more critical scrutiny than he has received, especially since a lot of the Gates Foundation’s money is channelled to western researchers and pharmaceutical companies, exacerbating inequality between the global north and global south. Gates has also long refused to concede that current patent protections on drugs and vaccines are unfair and biased against the interests of poor nations, making it legally difficult for them to respond to health emergencies even when they have the scientific knowhow.

Private philanthropy in general can be a threat to democratic accountability and a just society. Reverence for big donors implies that billions of underpaid and exploited people should be satisfied with philanthropic crumbs from a self-appointed aristocracy rather than entitled to economic justice. What’s really needed for a fairer, more equal society is not charity but justice, though Gates has long presumed otherwise.

From the worst years of the HIV crisis, when antiretroviral drugs were priced sky-high, through to today’s scandalously expensive diabetes and cancer treatments in the US and elsewhere, Gates has insisted that the patent system works just fine. His message to health activists who fight for lowered prices has essentially been: shut up and leave the business of health to the people who know business best, billionaires like me and our friends in the pharmaceutical industry.

It’s an illogical stance if you want a more equitable health system, but makes perfect sense if your fortune was built from strict patents on software and other technology. The surprise is not that Gates has consistently defended industry interests, but that it has taken people so long to realise that his efforts are undermining the health goals he purports to aim for.

In late April, Gates made his views on patent protections clear in an interview with Sophy Ridge on Sky news. Asked if he thought a proposal before the World Trade Organisation to waive patent restrictions on covid vaccines was a good idea, his answer was a firm no. What is ‘holding things back in this case is not intellectual property’, he insisted, but a lack of safe manufacturing facilities in poor nations.

This is not true, though he’s been making the same case for months. ‘At this point,’ he told Simon Allison of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian in January, ‘changing the rules wouldn’t make any additional vaccines available.’ But as Allison reports, experts at the World Health Organisation disagree. Although waiving patents is ‘no miracle fix’ on its own, it is an essential first step towards commissioning more factories to produce safe vaccines – factories that are currently sitting idle and have offered their services to help ramp up vaccine manufacturing.

In March, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called for the patent waiver that Gates objects to, and the UNAIDS executive director, Winnie Byanyima, asked the World Bank to ‘align with us’ in supporting patent waivers. She pointed out that relaxing intellectual property protections had been a necessary step for HIV treatments to come down in price from $10,000 per person to $100 in many African nations.

The growing distrust of Gates may signal a shift in public attitudes to the dangers of so much wealth and power being concentrated in unelected hands. There may even be sound reasons why people subscribe to the wildest, untrue conspiracy theories about him. In the 1830s, merchants employed by the East Indian Company had carried cholera to the docklands of Liverpool and London. As the disease spread, rumours began to link it with the crimes committed in Edinburgh in 1828 by William Burke and William Hare, who murdered at least sixteen people and sold the corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. They were eventually caught, Hare turned king’s evidence and Burke was sentenced to hanging. People suspected that Knox knew of or at least suspected the crimes but feigned ignorance. He was legally cleared of any involvement, but the public remained unconvinced.

A few years later, as cholera claimed more lives, the relatives of some of the dead rioted in the streets, demanding justice for loved ones they were convinced had died of a made-up disease, killed for their cadavers. It wasn’t true, of course, that hospitals were sites of systematic murder. But it was true that gruelling working conditions, weak public health infrastructure, and a classist, racist culture compounded the poor’s righteous mistrust of the rich. The cholera riots were politically incendiary, sparking activism that brought about improved sanitation and public health measures by the end of the 19th century.

The rioters were wrong about cholera, but understood all too well that the economic and political system was biased against them. The disease was brought to them by a corporation that had plundered India for the gain of aristocrats and the upper-middle classes, while labourers were paid crumbs to live and die in mills, mines and factories throughout the world. Today, Covid-19 disproportionately afflicts the poor, especially women and men of colour, while the rich have the means to barricade themselves against it.

Bill Gates, like William IV before him, sits at the apex of a global financial empire. The people who are angry with him, rightly or wrongly, shouldn’t be blamed for appreciating this reality. The blame lies with the billionaires like Gates who pretend the system works fine.


  • 4 May 2021 at 11:22pm
    Hilary Thomson says:
    More importantly it is inefficient to trust public health to the whims and interests of private individuals, however knowledgeable or well-intentioned.

  • 5 May 2021 at 10:49am
    Graham Winyard says:
    I am genuinely puzzled by this use of Gates to attack the grotesque inequalities of current financial regimes. Why not pick on the many multi-billionaires who contribute nothing to the common good?

    • 5 May 2021 at 3:45pm
      Graucho says: @ Graham Winyard
      Indeed. Why not attack Rupert Murdoch who only supports bad causes.

    • 5 May 2021 at 6:33pm
      Shaun says: @ Graham Winyard
      The answer is not complicated. It is because in Bill Gates we see perpetuated the philanthropy myth that helps sustain iniquitous systems: that there are good billionaires and bad billionaires, and that more problems might be solved if we could only be rid of the bad billionaires. This myth supposes that (mis)allocation of funds is a question only of morality and individual choice or priorities. The framing of Gates as one of the "good billionaires" thus distracts conversation from the systemic nature of the problem, where people begin to ask questions like Graucho's, missing the forest for the trees.

    • 5 May 2021 at 10:24pm
      Graucho says: @ Shaun
      Billionaires, good or bad are a consequence of the systemic nature of the problem not its cause and much of that cause lies deep in human nature.

    • 6 May 2021 at 9:27am
      Helmut Simon says: @ Shaun
      If indeed, such an influential myth is in fact prevalent. Bill Gates may advocate for patent provision, but he does not make the decision. Politicians do (and Biden may be moving). The only connection with Gates' philanthropy is that it gives him a platform, but there are many ways of getting a platform - ask Bono.

    • 8 May 2021 at 2:41pm
      recover says: @ Shaun
      Shaun - spot on.

      Also, the article could mention Gates's close ties to Jeffrey Epstein which, unusually, began after Epstein's conviction for sexual offences against minors. People are incredibly indulgent of the rich.

    • 8 May 2021 at 11:34pm
      freshborn says: @ Graucho
      Profit is theft and a thief who returned 100% of his gains couldn't be described as "contributing to the common good". I'm sure Gates does not return as much as 100% so we can judge him by what he has taken rather than what he has returned.

      Donations should be made anonymously, the only reason not to do so is to set an example. But even if you see it as legitimate to publicise your charity to set an example, you couldn't argue that the person should then be free of criticism.

      Incidentally, everything that is a cause of something is also a consequence of something else. They are far from mutually exclusive concepts.

    • 9 May 2021 at 12:44pm
      Graucho says: @ freshborn
      "Incidentally, everything that is a cause of something is also a consequence of something else. They are far from mutually exclusive concepts". Are you saying that Gates is the cause of capitalism as practised in the U.S.A. ? As my papa said to me once "Everyone's a socialist until they win the lottery". Gates helps perpetuate the system not by his foundation, but the fact that millions of Americans aspire to be in his position and his existence simply shows that it's possible to be that rich in the American system.

  • 5 May 2021 at 2:46pm
    Delaide says:
    “ There may even be sound reasons why people subscribe to the wildest, untrue conspiracy theories about him.” You lost me there.

  • 5 May 2021 at 7:55pm
    PV Nevin says:
    From Fortune, last year.
    Oxford’s COVID vaccine deal with AstraZeneca raises concerns about access and pricing
    Hoarding 'intellectual property' so fortunes can be made means mass death for the world.
    The political economy of the vampire.

  • 6 May 2021 at 2:59pm
    Graucho says:
    "The blame lies with the billionaires like Gates who pretend the system works fine." I disagree, the blame lies with voters who think the system works fine and the propaganda machine (Rupert Murdoch et al) that ceaselessly brainwashes them into so thinking. At the last U.S. election over 70 million Americans voted for a billionaire who is by any stretch of the imagination anything but a philanthropist.
    When a friend of mine joined big pharma she was told "Whatever you do, don't cure anything". It's a conumdrum of the free market brilliantly illustrated in "The man in the white suit". A film that should be compulsory viewing for any budding economist. Vaccines and antibiotics fix things and don't create a life long dependency on repeat prescriptions that are pharma's milk cow. You can't blame the industry. They have to survive in a cruel, unfair financial world where no good turn goes unpunished as AZ discovered with the EU. So Mr. Gates has decided to spend some of his gains ill gotten or not in researching areas unprofitable to pharma. People have done worse things. If his foundation does come up with a malaria vaccine, it won't just save millions of lives and misery, it will consign warehouses full of anti malarial drugs to the waste tip.

    • 8 May 2021 at 11:48pm
      freshborn says: @ Graucho
      Strange to think that Gates isn't also part of the propaganda film. MSN isn't as prominent as Murdoch's empire, but it exists. Gates might easily have made greater inroads into the media if his peers weren't already doing the job.

      Man in the White Suit is a great film except for the individualistic/Randian overtone. That may have been relevant centuries ago but nowadays nothing useful is invented by a righteous individual. The vaccines were developed almost entirely with public money and we are the rightful owners of the intellectual property.

    • 9 May 2021 at 2:29am
      Graucho says: @ freshborn
      I simply go back to my point about human nature and voters. It's an inconvenient truth for idealists that large swathes of the human race are mesmorised by wealth. Check out the circulation of Hello and OK magazines or the popularity of Dallas, Dynasty, the Kardashians and a plethora of derivative TV shows. Many admire the wealthy because they are wealthy, could care less as to how that wealth was acquired and earnestly desire to be in the same position. Stating this doesn't mean I approve of it, but there isn't enough space here to list all the unpalatable facts of life that I don't approve of.

  • 6 May 2021 at 5:03pm
    stevemerlan says:
    Amen to Hilary Thomson below. As money piles up in some places and masses of poor people suffer in others it seems to make sense that charitable efforts try to use the resources of the money piles to help the sufferers, but the result is too often an industry of the goodhearted rich who try to help but can't avoid benefiting themselves first.

    I have a fair number of acquaintances who are engaged in charitable efforts, most of them laudable at least in theory. But they have periodic meetings and planning sessions in places like Maui (before the pandemic). When I ask why they say they need to get together to exchange ideas and coordinate their efforts, And being the kinds of people who go to Maui and not Hamtramck they wind up on the Hana coast involuntarily so to speak.

    Not that government bureaucrats on official travel budgets don't also wind up in Hawaii when they can get away with it.

  • 7 May 2021 at 3:13pm
    F.S. says:
    That there should be "sound reasons why people subscribe to" conspiracy theories about Gates strikes me as a wildly irresponsible statement. Claiming that some individual is trying to implant microchips or to eradicate whole populations is, after all, entirely different from claiming that the economic and political system was biased. When an author's dislike of global financial empires leads them to condone whatever ridiculous lie is being spread about the people atop these empires, it doesn't much help their argument.

    • 8 May 2021 at 3:28pm
      suetonius says: @ F.S.
      My take on this, fwiw, is that she's merely pointing out that it's not historically unusual for something like this to happen. People who have nothing will often ascribe an easy reason for this, rather than deal with the not so easy actual cause. I personally don't think she meant to condone the idea that Gates was implanting microchips, merely to point out that it's not unusual. She does after all call them "wild" and "untrue."

    • 8 May 2021 at 11:54pm
      freshborn says: @ F.S.
      The conspiracy theorists might be factually incorrect but they are closer to the truth than anybody who believes Gates' self-mythologising.

  • 8 May 2021 at 3:06pm
    suetonius says:
    Well, the thing is, Gates has always been a pretty horrible guy. Any investigation makes this clear, people have for decades described how terrible he was to work for. And he made his money only because of family connections to IBM (and IBM's idiocy in not writing their own DOS). After he got his start with DOS, he stole ideas (largely from Apple, and it's worth noting that he didn't have anything really to do with DOS, he bought it along with it's writer, DOS is essentially CP/M which had been around for a while) without paying for them. Gates' rep as some sort of tech genius is completely unearned, he's never actually developed or coded anything. He's just an unbelievably lucky wanna be geek, and no one should pay the slightest attention to anything he says, certainly not about the health of the worlds people.

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