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Yuval Noah Harari: “Every crisis is also an opportunity”

In an interview with the UNESCO Courier, Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian and author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, analyses what the consequences of the current coronavirus health crisis are likely to be, and underlines the need for greater international scientific co-operation and information-sharing between countries.

How is this global health pandemic different from past health crises and what does it tell us?

I am not sure it is the worst global health threat we have faced. The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 was worse, the AIDS epidemic was probably worse, and pandemics in previous eras were certainly far worse. As pandemics go, this is actually a mild one. In the early 1980s, if you got AIDS – you died. The Black Death [the plague that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351] killed between a quarter and half of the affected populations. The 1918 influenza killed more than ten per cent of the entire population in some countries. In contrast, COVID-19 is killing less than five per cent of those infected, and unless some dangerous mutation occurs, it is unlikely to kill more than one per cent of the population of any country.

Moreover, in contrast to previous eras, we now have all the scientific knowledge and technological tools necessary to overcome this plague. When the Black Death struck, people were completely helpless. They never discovered what was killing them and what could be done about it. In 1348, the medical faculty of the University of Paris believed that the epidemic was caused by an astrological misfortune – namely that “a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius [caused] a deadly corruption of the air” (quoted in Rosemary Horrox ed. The Black Death, Manchester University Press, 1994, p. 159).

In contrast, when COVID-19 erupted, it took scientists only two weeks to correctly identify the virus responsible for the epidemic, sequence its entire genome, and develop reliable tests for the disease. We know what to do in order to stop the spread of this epidemic. It is likely that within a year or two, we will also have a vaccine.

However, COVID-19 is not just a health-care crisis. It also results in a huge economic and political crisis. I am less afraid of the virus than of the inner demons of humankind: hatred, greed and ignorance. If people blame the epidemic on foreigners and minorities; if greedy businesses care only about their profits; and if we believe all kinds of conspiracy theories – it will be much harder to overcome this epidemic, and later on we will live in a world poisoned by this hatred, greed and ignorance. In contrast, if we react to the epidemic with global solidarity and generosity, and if we trust in science rather than in conspiracy theories, I am sure we can not only overcome this crisis, but actually come out of it much stronger.

To what extent could social distancing become the norm? What effect will that have on societies?

For the duration of the crisis, some social distancing is inevitable. The virus spreads by exploiting our best human instincts. We are social animals. We like contact, especially in hard times. And when relatives, friends or neighbours are sick, our compassion arises and we want to come and help them. The virus is using this against us. This is how it spreads. So we need to act from the head rather than the heart, and despite the difficulties, reduce our level of contact. Whereas the virus is a mindless piece of genetic information, we humans have a mind, we can analyse the situation rationally, and we can vary the way we behave. I believe that once the crisis is over, we will not see any long-term effects on our basic human instincts. We will still be social animals. We will still love contact. We will still come to help friends and relatives.

Look, for example, at what happened to the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] community in the wake of AIDS. It was a terrible epidemic, and gay people were often completely abandoned by the state, and yet the epidemic did not cause the disintegration of that community. Just the opposite. Already, at the height of the crisis, LGBT volunteers established many new organizations to help sick people, to spread reliable information, and to fight for political rights. In the 1990s, after the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, the LGBT community in many countries was much stronger than before.

How do you see the state of scientific and information co-operation after the crisis? UNESCO was created after the Second World War to promote scientific and intellectual co-operation through the free flow of ideas. Could the "free flow of ideas" and co-operation between countries be strengthened as a result of the crisis?

Our biggest advantage over the virus is our ability to co-operate effectively. A virus in China and a virus in the United States cannot swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the US many valuable lessons about coronavirus and how to deal with it. More than that – China can actually send experts and equipment to directly help the US, and the US can similarly help other countries. The viruses cannot do anything like that.

And of all forms of co-operation, the sharing of information is probably the most important, because you cannot do anything without accurate information. You cannot develop medicines and vaccines without reliable information. Indeed, even isolation depends on information. If you don’t understand how a disease spreads, how can you quarantine people against it?

For example, isolation against AIDS is very different from isolation against COVID-19. To isolate yourself against AIDS, you need to use a condom while having sex, but there is no problem talking face to face with an HIV+ person – or shaking their hands and even hugging them. COVID-19 is an entirely different story. To know how to isolate yourself from a particular epidemic, you first need reliable information about what causes this epidemic. Is it viruses or bacteria? Is it transmitted through blood or breath? Does it endanger children or the elderly? Is there just one strain of the virus, or several mutant strains?    

In recent years, authoritarian and populist politicians have sought not only to block the free flow of information, but even to undermine the public’s trust in science. Some politicians depicted scientists as a sinister elite, disconnected from “the people”. These politicians told their followers not to believe what scientists are saying about climate change, or even about vaccinations. It should now be obvious to everyone how dangerous such populist messages are. In a time of crisis, we need information to flow openly, and we need people to trust scientific experts rather than political demagogues.

Fortunately, in the current emergency most people indeed turn to science. The Catholic Church instructs the faithful to stay away from the churches. Israel has closed down its synagogues. The Islamic Republic of Iran is punishing people who go to mosques. Temples and sects of all kinds have suspended public ceremonies. And all because scientists have made some calculations and recommended closing down these holy places.     

I hope that people will remember the importance of trustworthy scientific information even after this crisis is over. If we want to enjoy trustworthy scientific information in a time of emergency, we must invest in it in normal times. Scientific information doesn’t come down from heaven, nor does it spring from the mind of individual geniuses. It depends on having strong independent institutions like universities, hospitals and newspapers. Institutions that not only research the truth, but are also free to tell people the truth, without being afraid of being punished by some authoritarian government. It takes years to build such institutions. But it is worth it. A society that provides citizens with a good scientific education, and that is served by strong independent institutions, can deal with an epidemic far better than a brutal dictatorship that has to constantly police an ignorant population.

For example, how do you make millions of people wash their hands with soap every day? One way to do it is to place a policeman, or perhaps a camera, in every toilet, and punish people who fail to wash their hands. Another way is to teach people in school about viruses and bacteria, explain that soap can remove or kill these pathogens, and then trust people to make up their own minds. What do you think, which method is more efficient?

How important is it for countries to work together to disseminate reliable information?

Countries need to share trustworthy information not only about narrow medical issues, but also about a wide range of other issues – from the economic impact of the crisis to the psychological condition of citizens. Suppose country X is currently debating which kind of lockdown policy to adopt. It has to take into consideration not only the spread of the disease, but also the economic and psychological costs of lockdown. Other countries have already faced this dilemma before, and tried different policies. Instead of acting on the basis of pure speculations and repeating past mistakes, country X can examine what were the actual consequences of the different policies adopted in China, the Republic of  Korea, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom. It can thereby make better decisions. But only if all these countries honestly report not just the number of sick and dead people, but also what happened to their economies and to the mental health of their citizens.

The rise of AI and the need for technical solutions has seen private companies come forward. In this context, is it still possible to develop global ethical principles and restore international co-operation?

As private companies get involved, it becomes even more important to craft global ethical principles and restore international co-operation. Some private companies may be motivated by greed more than solidarity, so they must be regulated carefully. Even those acting benevolently are not directly accountable to the public, so it is dangerous to allow them to accumulate too much power.

This is particularly true when talking about surveillance. We are witnessing the creation of new surveillance systems all over the world, by both governments and corporations. The current crisis might mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance. First, because it might legitimate and normalize the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them. Secondly, and even more importantly, it signifies a dramatic transition from “over the skin” to “under the skin” surveillance.

Previously, governments and corporations monitored mainly your actions in the world – where you go, who you meet. Now they have become more interested in what is happening inside your body. In your medical condition, body temperature, blood pressure. That kind of biometric information can tell governments and corporations far more about you than ever before.

Could you suggest some ethical principles for how these new surveillance systems can be regulated?

Ideally, the surveillance system should be operated by a special health-care authority rather than by a private company or by the security services. The health-care authority should be narrowly focused on preventing epidemics, and should have no other commercial or political interests. I am particularly alarmed when I hear people comparing the COVID-19 crisis to war, and calling for the security services to take over. This isn’t a war. It is a health-care crisis. There are no human enemies to kill. It is all about taking care of people. The dominant image in war is a soldier with a rifle storming forward. Now the image in our heads should be a nurse changing bed-sheets in a hospital. Soldiers and nurses have a very different way of thinking. If you want to put somebody in charge, don’t put a soldier in charge. Put a nurse. 

The health-care authority should gather the minimum amount of data necessary for the narrow task of preventing epidemics, and should not share this data with any other governmental body – especially not the police. Nor should it share the data with private companies. It should make sure that data gathered about individuals is never used to harm or manipulate these individuals – for example, leading to people losing their jobs or their insurance. 

The health-care authority may make the data accessible to scientific research, but only if the fruits of this research are made freely available to humanity, and if any incidental profits are reinvested in providing people with better health care.

In contrast to all these limitations on data sharing, the individuals themselves should be given as much control of the data gathered about them. They should be free to examine their personal data and benefit from it.

Finally, while such surveillance systems would probably be national in character, to really prevent epidemics, the different health-care authorities would have to co-operate with one another. Since pathogens don’t respect national borders, unless we combine data from different countries, it will be difficult to spot and stop epidemics. If national surveillance is done by an independent health-care authority which is free of political and commercial interests, it would be much easier for such national authorities to co-operate globally.    

You have spoken of a recent rapid deterioration of trust in the international system. How do you see the profound changes in multilateral co-operation in the future?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. It depends on the choices we make in the present. Countries can choose to compete for scarce resources and pursue an egoistic and isolationist policy, or they could choose to help one another in the spirit of global solidarity. This choice will shape both the course of the present crisis and the future of the international system for years to come.

I hope countries will choose solidarity and co-operation. We cannot stop this epidemic without close co-operation between countries all over the world. Even if a particular country succeeds in stopping the epidemic in its territory for a while, as long as the epidemic continues to spread elsewhere, it might return everywhere. Even worse, viruses constantly mutate. A mutation in the virus anywhere in the world might make it more contagious or more deadly, putting in danger all of humankind. The only way we can really protect ourselves, is by helping to protect all humans.

The same is true of the economic crisis. If every country looks only after its own interests, the result will be a severe global recession that will hit everyone. Rich countries like the US, Germany and Japan will muddle through one way or the other. But poorer countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America might completely collapse. The US can afford a $2 trillion rescue package for its economy. Ecuador, Nigeria and Pakistan don’t have similar resources. We need a global economic rescue plan.

Unfortunately, so far we don’t see anything like the strong global leadership we need. The US, which acted as world leader during the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the 2008 financial crisis, has abdicated this job. The Trump administration has made it very clear that it cares only about the US, and has abandoned even its closest allies in Western Europe. Even if the US now comes up with some kind of global plan, who would trust it, and who would follow its lead? Would you follow a leader whose motto is “Me First”?

But every crisis is also an opportunity. Hopefully the current epidemic will help humankind realize the acute danger posed by global disunity. If indeed this epidemic eventually results in closer global co-operation, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all the other dangers that threaten humankind – from climate change to nuclear war.

You speak about how the choices we make now will affect our societies economically, politically and culturally, for years to come. What are these choices and who will be responsible for making them?

We are faced with many choices. Not only the choice between nationalistic isolationism and global solidarity. Another important question is whether people would support the rise of dictators, or would they insist on dealing with the emergency in a democratic way? When governments spend billions to help failing businesses, would they save big corporations or small family businesses? As people switch to working from home and communicating online, will this result in the collapse of organized labour, or would we see better protection for workers’ rights?

All these are political choices. We must be aware that we are now facing not just a health-care crisis, but also a political crisis. The media and the citizens should not allow themselves to be completely distracted by the epidemic. It is of course important to follow the latest news about the sickness itself – how many people died today? How many people were infected? But it is equally important to pay attention to politics and to put pressure on politicians to do the right thing. Citizens should pressure politicians to act in the spirit of global solidarity; to co-operate with other countries rather than blame them; to distribute funds in a fair way; to preserve democratic checks and balances – even in an emergency.    

The time to do all that is now. Whoever we elect to government in coming years will not be able to reverse the decisions that are taken now. If you become president in 2021, it is like coming to a party when the party is already over and the only thing left to do is wash the dirty dishes. If you become president in 2021, you will discover that the previous government has already distributed tens of billions of dollars – and you have a mountain of debts to repay. The previous government has already restructured the job market – and you cannot start from scratch again. The previous government has already introduced new surveillance systems – and they cannot be abolished overnight. So don’t wait till 2021. Monitor what the politicians are doing right now.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author, and not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

Read more: 

Who owns science? The UNESCO Courier, May 1999

Medicine and health, The UNESCO Courier, August 1987

World health: ten years of progress, The UNESCO Courier, May 1958