Considered one of the foremost thinkers of our time, the author of the best-selling Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari has had a lot to say about the how the world responds to the coronavirus pandemic.
For the renowned Israeli historian and philosopher, these are weighty times. “The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare system, but also our economy, politics and culture,” the 44-year-old stated in a recent interview with the Financial Times.
The choices facing the world’s most powerful figures in response to the pandemic are fraught with peril. Harari cautions against what Naomi Klein labelled the ‘Shock Doctrine’, a strategy employed by those in power to exploit times of crisis – war, revolution, pandemics – to push through radical agendas that, in normal times would stand little chance of being accepted. “Emergencies fast forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberations are passed in a matter of hours. Immature or even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger.”
Mass surveillance or personal responsability
As an example, Harari brings up Covid tracing apps, which allow the authorities to track the spread of the disease. A public health emergency, such as the current pandemic, is used to justify the use of this type of intrusive technology, which can also be used by a totalitarian government to tighten control of a population or restrict an individual’s civil liberties.
In determining the type of society that we want to live in and leave to our children, either we accept a system of totalitarianism that legitimates masse surveillance simply because technology now affords us the means to do so, or we build a society based on individual responsibility. This is the choice we are going to have to make, according to the 44 year old, who recently pledged to donate one million dollars to the World Health Organization to help fund their efforts to combat the virus.
“If we are not careful, the epidemic might mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance, not only because it might normalize the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it signifies a dramatic transition from ‘over the skin’ to ‘under the skin’ surveillance. I am all in favor of monitoring my blood pressure and body temperature, but that data should not be used to create an all-powerful government.”
"Harari proposes a system founded on honesty and personal responsibility. He says democratizing, not centralizing, access to information will be key if such a system is to work"
Harari proposes a system founded on honesty and personal responsibility. He says democratizing, not centralizing, access to information will be key if such a system is to work.
“Asking people to choose between privacy and health is the very root of the problem. This is a false choice. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. When citizens have access to scientific information and feel they can trust the authorities, they can contribute to the good of society. A population that’s motivated and well informed, is much stronger and more effective that one which is ignorant and constantly monitored.”
National isolation or global cooperation
In the year of the virus, countries can choose isolationism, act unilaterally, and blame foreign governments for their problems while continuing to persecute minorities - Donald Trump would appear to have found the perfect scapegoats in China and the WTO, should he fail to win re-election in November – or they can opt for a strategy of international cooperation. “In order to defeat the virus, we need to share information globally,” Harari wrote in the FT, “that’s the big advantage of human’s over viruses. A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the US cannot swap tips about how to infect humans.”
Harari envisages a coordinated global economic relaunch plan to respond to the recession caused by the virus, but he not naïve. Conscious of the geopolitical gains to be made by winning the race to discover a viable vaccine, he deplores the lack of cooperation between the great powers.
“Every crisis is also an opportunity. We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realize the acute danger posed by global disunity.”
By Coline Choraine
Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 lessons for the 21st Century is out now on audiobook and paperback from Random House