This article was published on April 15, 2020

What Elon Musk can learn from Bill Gates about handling a pandemic

What Elon Musk can learn from Bill Gates about handling a pandemic
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to separate competent leaders from those who are merely in charge. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is one of the former. He’s spent years working with leading medical experts to develop a measured response to a situation exactly like the one we’re in.

Despite the fact he retired from his leadership positions at Microsoft so he could pursue philanthropic endeavors with his non-profit organization, The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, Gates has become big tech’s defacto pandemic leader. He’s spending billions to develop several potential treatments for COVID-19 simultaneously and donating to several other initiatives aimed at fighting the disease. And he’s been the most prominent voice in big tech standing up to US President Donald Trump’s global missteps during the pandemic.

But perhaps most importantly, he’s been a voice of reason. In mid-January his social media accounts became a source of solid, science-based information on infectious diseases. As the outbreak gained steam, he released a steady flow of useful information in a calm and sensible manner.

He’s remained guardedly optimistic and realistically concerned since the onset of the disease and consistently conveyed the need for calm urgency. To those looking for a leader with a sense of purpose and the expertise and skills to accomplish things, we could ask for little more.

And then there’s Elon Musk.

His response has been to play the provocateur. As he usually does in emergent situations, Musk strode into the pandemic with misinformation right before performing his “I’m the smartest guy in the room” routine where he decides he can solve any problem by just thinking about it really hard for a few minutes.

First, he spread misinformation and dismissed the threat entirely. He told his millions of followers that coronavirus was just like the common cold.

But once Musk decided that COVID-19 was a problem he sprung into action without a plan as usual. He promised US hospitals a shipment of thousands of ventilator machines and then bungled it. He delivered on the goods, but it turns out they were sleep apnea machines he’d purchased from China and stuck a Tesla sticker on. In his defense, some doctors reported being able to modify them to work.

Then he promoted an untested “cure” for COVID-19 called chloroquine. The same one that US President Donald Trump kept trying to fast-track into sick people’s hands. As a result of politicians, celebrities, and the media touting this “miracle cure,” a terrified senior couple in the US died after ingesting a chemical cleaning compound that contained chloroquine.

A recent study on the efficacy of chloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 was abandoned after test subjects experienced dangerous side-effects including irregular heartbeat.

While Elon was tweeting bad info about chloroquine, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was running scientific trials. And that’s the biggest difference between the two: Gates uses his power and money to bring experts together to create solutions, while Elon Musk seemingly fancies himself the hero who’ll single-handedly save the day.

In the end, it’s clear that Musk is out of his depth when being the smartest person in the room isn’t good enough. His efforts to help in a time of crisis are admirable but, as usual, what little relative good he does is offset by a misleading narrative and a knee-jerk response.

Here’s hoping Musk will take a page from Gates’ book and stop acting like a one-man crisis center. Musk should put his considerable fortune and incredible influence to work for the greater good by using it to empower experts instead of just pretending to be one.

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