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Israeli author, historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari. Photo: AFP

Homo Deus author Yuval Harari shares pandemic lessons from past and warnings for future

  • Covid-19 crisis was not inevitable natural disaster but rather human failure: Harari
  • Author says we have science, wisdom and community in our favour during fight against coronavirus

Historian Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, answers questions from the South China Morning Post on how the coronavirus pandemic poses unprecedented challenges in biometric surveillance, governance and global cooperation.

Q: You wrote “if we are indeed bringing famine, plague and war under control …” in Homo Deus. Given that the spread of the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated, do you still believe mankind has largely reined in plagues?

We obviously cannot prevent the appearance of new infectious diseases. Pathogens constantly jump from animals to humans, or undergo mutations that make them more contagious and deadly than before. However, we do have the power to rein in plagues, and prevent them from killing millions and from destroying the economy.

We should compare our situation today to that in previous eras. When plagues spread in the pre-modern era, humans usually had no idea what caused them, and what could be done to stop them. They usually blamed the plague on angry gods or black magic, and the best thing they could think of doing was hold mass prayers to the gods – which often led to mass infections. When in the 14th century the Black Death killed more than a quarter of all people in Asia and Europe, humans never discovered what caused it. When in the 16th century smallpox and other epidemics killed up to 90 per cent of the native populations of America, the Aztecs, Maya and Inca had no clue why they were dying in their millions.

In contrast, when the coronavirus epidemic began, it took scientists just two weeks to identify the novel virus, sequence its genome and develop a reliable test to identify infected people. Doctors are winning the arms race with pathogens, because pathogens rely on blind mutations, while doctors rely on information. Countries can send information, experts and equipment to help one another contain the plague. Governments and banks can work out a common plan to prevent economic collapse.

However, there is one big caveat. The fact that humanity has the power to rein in plagues, does not mean it always has the wisdom to use that power well. In 2015 I wrote in Homo Deus that “while we cannot be certain that some new Ebola outbreak or an unknown flu strain won’t sweep across the globe and kill millions, we will not regard it as an inevitable natural calamity. Rather, we will see it as an inexcusable human failure and demand the heads of those responsible. … humankind has the knowledge and tools to prevent plagues, and if an epidemic nevertheless gets out of control, it is due to human incompetence rather than divine anger.”

I think these words still hold true today. What we are seeing around the world now is not an inevitable natural disaster. It is a human failure. Irresponsible governments neglected their health care systems, failed to react on time, and are at present still failing to cooperate effectively on a global level. We have the power to stop this, but so far we lack the necessary wisdom.

Q: China is attempting to portray its success at controlling the epidemic, saying it has largely stamped out domestic spread. Are authoritarian regimes, which can enforce lockdowns, better equipped to deal with pandemics than Western democracies?

Not necessarily. It is easier to deal with an epidemic if you can rely on a self-motivated and well-informed population than if you have to police an ignorant and suspicious population. Can you make millions of people wash their hands with soap every day by placing policemen or cameras in their toilets? That’s very difficult. But if you educate people, and if people trust the information they get, they can do the right thing on their own initiative.

I learned in school that viruses and bacteria cause disease. I learned that washing my hands with soap can remove or kill these pathogens. I trust this information. So I wash my hands of my own volition. And so do billions of other people.

The problem is that in recent years, populist politicians in many countries – including democratic countries – have deliberately undermined people’s trust in science, in the media, and in public authorities. Without such trust, people aren’t sure what to do. The solution is not to impose an authoritarian regime. The solution is to rebuild trust in science, in the media and in public authorities. Once you have such trust, you can rely on people to do the right thing even without constant surveillance and fear of punishment.

Q: We’ve seen countries like China using smartphones and apps to collect citizens’ location and health data to fight the epidemic. Could global pandemics drive the development of a more biometric state?

Yes, that is a major danger. The coronavirus epidemic might mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance. First, because it might legitimate and normalise 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 monitored mainly your actions in the world – where you go, who you meet. Now they 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 the government far more about you than ever before.

Imagine some totalitarian state in 10 years that requires every citizen to wear a biometric bracelet that monitors you 24 hours a day. By using our growing understanding of the human body and brain, and using the immense powers of machine learning, the regime might be able for the first time in history to know what each and every citizen is feeling each and every moment. If you listen to a speech of the Great Leader on Television, and the biometric sensors pick up the telltale signs of anger (higher blood pressure, slight rise in body temperature, increased activity in the amygdala), you’ll be in deep trouble. You could smile and clap your hands mechanically, but if you are actually angry, the regime will know that.

Governments might argue that this dystopian scenario has nothing to do with the current measures being taken to combat Covid-19. These are just temporary measures taken during a state of emergency. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. Even when coronavirus cases are down to zero, some governments might argue that they need to keep the new surveillance systems because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because they want to protect people from seasonal flu. Why stop with halting coronavirus?

A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health. But asking people to choose between privacy and health is, in fact, the very root of the problem. This is a false dichotomy. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by educating and empowering citizens. Remember that when people have a good scientific education, and when they trust public authorities to tell them the truth, people can do the right thing on their own initiative.

Q: Some countries, such as the US and those in Europe, were slow to act even though they had months to prepare while the epidemic raged in China before spreading. What should we learn from this? 

I hope the main lesson from this epidemic is that people realise that we are all in this together. This isn’t a Chinese crisis or an Italian crisis, it is a global crisis. People all over the world share the same experiences, fears and interests. From the virus’s perspective, we are all similar, we are all human prey. And from the human perspective, as long as the epidemic spreads in any one country, it endangers all of us, because it can reach all of us. Therefore we need a global plan to fight this epidemic.

A researcher works on virus replication to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, in Brazil. Yuval Harari says cooperation between nations is crucial at this time. Photo: AFP

Q: Could this pandemic lead countries to reassess globalisation and install more barriers in terms of borders, trade and culture?

Some people indeed blame the coronavirus epidemic on globalisation, and say that to prevent more such outbreaks we should de-globalise the world. But this is a complete mistake. Epidemics spread long before the era of globalisation. In the Middle Ages viruses travelled at the speed of a packhorse, and in most places they could infect only small towns and villages. Yet plagues such as the Black Death were far more deadly than today. If you want to defend yourself from epidemics by isolation, you will have to go back all the way to the Stone Age. This was the last time when humans were free from epidemics, because back then there were very few humans, with very few connections.

The real antidote to epidemics isn’t isolation and segregation, it is information and cooperation. The big advantage of humans over viruses is the ability to cooperate effectively. A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the USA cannot swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the USA 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 USA. The viruses cannot do anything like that.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of leadership, we are not making the most of our ability to cooperate. Over the last few years, irresponsible politicians in various parts of the world have deliberately undermined trust in international cooperation. We are now paying the price for that. There seem to be no adults in the room.

Hopefully, we would soon see more and better cooperation at least in the following five fields:

1. Share reliable information. Countries that have already experienced the epidemic should teach other countries about it. Data from all over the world should be shared openly and speedily in the effort to contain the epidemic and develop medicines and vaccines.

2. Coordinate global production and fair distribution of essential medical equipment such as testing kits, protective gear and respiratory machines. Global coordination can overcome bottlenecks in production, and can make sure that the equipment goes to the countries that need it most, rather than to the richest countries.

3. Less-affected countries should send doctors, nurses and experts to the worst-affected countries, both to help them and to gain valuable experience. The centre of the epidemic keeps shifting. Previously it was China, now it is Europe, maybe next month it will be the USA and later on Brazil. If Brazil sends help to Italy today, maybe in two months when Italy recovers and Brazil is in crisis, Italy will repay the favour.

4. Create a global economic safety net to save the worst-hit countries and sectors. This is particularly important for poorer countries. Rich countries like the USA, Japan and Germany will be OK. But once the epidemic spreads to countries in Africa, the Middle East and South America, it could lead there to complete economic collapse, unless we have a global plan of action in place.

5. Formulate a global agreement on pre-screening of travellers that will allow a trickle of essential travellers to continue crossing borders. If the origin country carefully screens travellers before they board a plane, the destination country should feel safe to let them in.

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