Bill Gates’s long-overdue fall from grace has been a rare silver lining in an otherwise ghastly year. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it as much as the rest of us. Deservedly dogged by bad press for his stalwart defense of pharmaceutical profits over COVID-19 patients in poor countries, sexual harassment of Microsoft employees, and his apparently extensive ties to multimillionaire and sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, Gates tried for some damage control in an interview last week with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
His friendship with Epstein was “a huge mistake,” Gates asserted. “I had several dinners with him, hoping that what he said about getting billions of philanthropy for global health, through contacts that he had, might emerge. When it looked like that wasn’t a real thing, that relationship ended. But it was a huge mistake to spend time with him, to give him the credibility of being there.”
It’s impossible to overstate how disingenuous this is. The yearslong connection Gates cultivated with Epstein — and vice versa — can hardly be described as a momentary oopsie. They were two of the richest men on Earth, meeting after Epstein had already been convicted for child sex trafficking, very intentionally scratching each other’s back and bolstering each other’s charitable endeavors. The relationship between them — and what compelled both to build one — should be seen not as a lapse in judgment but as an indictment of billionaire philanthropy itself.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s leading private charity, focusing largely on global health. Its $100 billion endowment exceeds the GDP of dozens of countries where it works. While researching my master’s thesis on drug-resistant tuberculosis in the former Soviet Union, the omnipresence of the Gates Foundation was obvious: the organization accounts for a sizable share of overall spending on so-called infectious diseases of poverty — HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria — in middle- and low-income countries around the world, bankrolling critical medicines and public health capacities.
But the pervasiveness of Gates funding doesn’t justify its angelic sheen: it means that a slice of Bill’s ill-gotten goods has been reallocated to address the misery that he and his ruling-class allies played no small part in creating. The “diseases of poverty” the foundation combats are called that for a reason — they persist because global capitalism churns out a handful of gazillionaires while dooming millions a year to die of conditions that are curable or manageable using resources controlled by for-profit companies. The medicines Gates is ostensibly magnanimous enough to dispatch to desperate places overseas are unattainably expensive, thanks to an international intellectual property regime that has arguably benefited Bill Gates more than any other human being on Earth.
Gates’s lament at having granted Epstein undue credibility doesn’t address why, exactly, Gates deserves any himself: hoarding more resources than any one person should have and returning a pittance to mitigate the damage has netted him an unelected position as the most powerful global health figure on the planet.
He’s a permanent fixture on panels full of rich people talking to rich people about poor people. He has direct connections with heads of state and practically any financial firm he pleases, who in turn get to bask in the glow of his philanthropic halo. And all the while, he gets to cultivate a brand as a selfless luminary crusading for a better world — one that just so happens to keep in place the inequality and exploitation that makes this one unbearable. Far from Gates “giving back,” we’re paying him for his troubles, thanks to charitable tax write-offs that collectively deplete billions from public coffers each year and the ways that capitalism systematically rewards capital over labor.
When you look at it that way, of course Gates met with Epstein and flew in his notorious private jet. Epstein’s contacts promised to further fortify Gates’s power, expanding his glory as a figurehead dedicated to ameliorating global suffering. And of course Epstein met with Gates, successfully courting a multimillion-dollar donation to do a little philanthropic reputation laundering of his own. Epstein got away with horrifically abusing young women for so many years because of his wealth, which made him useful enough for everyone around him (including Gates) to eagerly look the other way.
That’s no “mistake,” as Gates would have you believe. It’s the root of the problem: so much sorrow in the world is driven by the simple fact that just a few people control so many resources, while billions of people have none. It makes the latter overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and rampant infectious disease, and the former to thrive by exploiting them. That’s something Gates and Epstein have in common.