When Paul and I were starting Microsoft, we had a vision that personal computers would one day play a significant role in people’s lives. But I don’t think either of us ever foresaw a future where they would be your only connection to the world. Like many people, there were entire days this year when the only human interaction I had was through a screen.
The result has been the most unusual and difficult year of my life. (I suspect a lot of the people reading this might say the same.) 2020 had a brief period of relative normalcy before COVID-19 upended everything. In 2021, the pandemic has dominated our lives since day one. We’ve all had to adapt to a “new normal,” although what that looks like is different for every person. For me, the result has been a year spent mostly online.
I had stretches of time without any face-to-face social interaction. If I had a break between meetings, I’d walk around my yard just to see something different. After work, I’d play bridge with friends online or hang out with them over video chat. Once I got vaccinated, I started having some small in-person get-togethers, but my social life is still a lot more digital than it used to be.
It’s been a strange and disorienting experience. My personal world has never felt smaller than it did over the last twelve months.View media in original article
At the same time, this year was a reminder that our world is more connected than ever. 2021 was full of monumental events with global repercussions, including extreme weather events, the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Every time you looked at the news, you were reminded of just how significantly something happening on the other side of the world could affect you at home. (Just look at how one container ship stuck in the Suez Canal for a week caused shipping delays around the world.) It’s never been clearer that tackling big problems requires people working together across borders and sectors.
Collaboration has been a constant theme with my work this year. The foundation continues to take up the bulk of my time, and I’m blown away by the amazing progress made by our team and our partners in 2021. Most weeks, we have a virtual get-together with everyone who’s working on our COVID response. Each meeting focuses on a different topic, like disease modelling or vaccine distribution. It’s inspiring to hear how groups are working together to find solutions.
Although COVID-19 has been a huge focus, the foundation continues to make progress in other areas. Our U.S. Program is working with partners to help students and teachers navigate the strange new world of pandemic-era education, and my colleagues working on gender equality are fighting for a more equitable global recovery. The global health and development teams have found creative ways to protect advancements on diseases like polio, TB, and HIV and continue progress in reducing childhood mortality. (This year’s Goalkeepers Report outlines how the pandemic hasn’t set us back as badly as feared.)
One of the most exciting things that happened was WHO approval of the first malaria vaccine. Malaria kills nearly 650,000 people every year—more than half of them children under five—and remains one of the leading causes of death in low-income countries. We funded late-stage clinical development of the vaccine between 2001 and 2015 and continue to support research into how to optimize its effectiveness. This new vaccine is giving us insights into how to develop second-generation vaccines and preventative tools that can be used on all ages, are even more effective, and can help us reach the goal of eradication.
“One of the most exciting things that happened was WHO approval of the first malaria vaccine.”
This year also saw the start of a new chapter in my climate work. I released my book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and launched the Breakthrough Energy Catalyst and Fellows programs to support financing, producing, and buying new clean-energy technologies. The reason I felt confident enough to expand our efforts so significantly was the incredible progress I’ve seen from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, where we are now supporting over 70 amazing companies.
I’ve been working on climate and energy issues for a long time, but the area has become a bigger part of my focus over the last twelve months. I also found time to work on some non-foundation and non-climate related areas, like Alzheimer’s research and expanding free educational resources for teachers.
Even though I think the things I’ve been working on are by far the most interesting part of my year, I know a lot of people are curious about a subject closer to home: my divorce. Melinda and I continue to run our foundation together and have found a good new working rhythm, but I can’t deny that it’s been a year of great personal sadness for me. Adapting to change is never easy, no matter what it is. I’ve been impressed by how resilient my loved ones—especially my kids—have been in this challenging time.
My family also experienced a lot of changes beyond what you probably saw in the news. My oldest daughter, Jenn, got married this fall, and her wedding was the highlight of my year. Our youngest, Phoebe, graduated from high school and went off to college. Since my son Rory is also away at school, that means I’m officially an empty nester. The house is a lot quieter without a bunch of teenagers hanging around all the time. I miss having them at home, even if it is easier to focus on reading a book or getting work done these days.
2021 has been a year of big transitions for me, but it hasn’t changed why I love the work I do. As it comes to a close, I wrote about four things that are top of mind heading into 2022:
- The latest progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic
- Why decreased trust in institutions might be the biggest obstacle standing in our way
- What the climate conversation can teach us about making progress
- How the rapid digitization brought on by the pandemic will shape our future
You can read my full year-in-review on gatesnotes.com.