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Philanthropists Have the Power to Prevent Pandemic History Repeating Itself

While discussing future pandemics might not gain politicians any favor, philanthropists have a special superpower—the ability to privatize failure and socialize success.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” These words from Winston Churchill called out to me when I saw Bill Gates’ latest warning about the inevitability of future pandemics met with a collective shrug by world leaders.

The same happened in 2015, when in the wake of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Gates warned that humanity was vastly unprepared for a global pandemic. In that case, the severity of Ebola had prevented its own spread as it rendered the infected too unwell to go out. 

“Next time, we might not be so lucky. You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they’re infectious that they get on a plane, or they go to a market,” Gates warned.

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And so, it came to pass. The global failure to prepare for a highly infectious virus has since led to close to six million deaths worldwide and counting.  

COVID-19 has been treated as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event in most quarters. But with global biodiversity being continually devastated, the opportunity for more lethal pathogens to emerge only increases. 

However, I fully understand why the initial popular response to anyone warning of another pandemic is resistance. We are all fatigued from the past two years, and so having to think about the possibility of another is simply exhausting.

As a result, it becomes extremely difficult for politicians to put pandemic prevention at the top of their agendas. The aim of most global leaders right now is to get their economies moving again and return to “normality.” It is hardly a vote winner to be focused on a hypothetical future epidemic. 

But not being politically advantageous does not make it an unworthy cause. In fact, it is necessary for our safety that we prepare for the possibility. The question is, who can step up and make the difference?

In my view, philanthropists will be the key to pandemic prevention. Bill Gates himself has demonstrated noble commitment to this, with a history of research and investment in tackling diseases such as HIV and malaria in the developing world, as well as a recent $300 million endowment to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

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He is by no means the first. Louis Pasteur founded Institut Pasteur in 1887, which has since been central to finding vaccinations for a number of deadly diseases. J.D. Rockefeller, perhaps the early 20th century’s most famous philanthropist, gave away $530 million during his lifetime, $450 million of which—around $8.5 billion adjusted for inflation—went into medicine.

Private philanthropists like these must step up to fund risky and future-facing projects, such as pandemic preparedness, to fill the gaps that public bodies, driven by political agendas, will likely not fund.

And the reason they can inject such great sums into specific causes is because of what I call the philanthropist’s superpower. That is the ability to privatize failure and socialize success. High net worth individuals have no stakeholders in their personal wealth but themselves, unlike governments and corporations who answer to voters and shareholders respectively.

Philanthropists can afford to embrace risk and invest in the unlikely ventures and research that can really change the world—what I call “moonshot philanthropy.” It is an approach I have taken in my own philanthropic journey, specifically in the space of eyecare and childhood literacy. These are issues that I believe, if addressed, can have a significant impact on global health and well-being.

Throughout that journey, I have invested in initiatives that have failed and the road to impact has been long and arduous. But through persistence and a willingness to invest in risky solutions, such as Vision for a Nation—a charity that brought affordable eyecare to the whole of Rwanda, the first country in the world to achieve this—and Clearly—an ongoing campaign for universal affordable eyecare—the UN has now recognised ‘Vision for Everyone’ as a golden thread to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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Vision correction has not been simple to address, but in many ways the issue is “low hanging fruit,” because the solution has been in front of our eyes for more than 700 years: a simple pair of glasses.

Further low hanging fruit lies in terms of resisting the next pandemic. Six out of the 10 WHO priority diseases currently lack research into the vital diagnostic tests that would address them, and while it is understandable that governments would not treat this as a priority in the midst of economic recovery from COVID-19, philanthropists must take this moment to prevent history repeating itself once more. 

James Chen has dedicated the last 20 years to addressing the issue of poor vision. He founded Clearly, a global campaign to educate the public and world leaders and raise the profile of the issue—championing innovation and spreading best practices that helps make sight tests and affordable glasses available to all, as well as connecting people committed to tackling this issue so we can all be a catalyst for change.

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