Harari: five lessons we can learn from Covid

Digital age: Science and technology is at the forefront of the fight against the virus. © Getty

Has the Covid-19 tragedy left the world a better place? With the end of the pandemic finally in sight, one of the world’s most admired thinkers has urged changes to ensure a brighter future.

In March 2020, as the virus spread across the world and entire nations went into lockdown, one famous philosopher issued a stark warning.

“Humankind is now facing a global crisis,” wrote Yuval Noah Harari. “Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive – but we will inhabit a different world.”

Now, with the vaccine rollout underway and the end of the pandemic finally on the horizon, Harari is back. Here are his five key lessons from the past year.

1) Science works. In the war between humans and disease, humans have more power today than ever before. It took scientists less than a month to identify the coronavirus and less than a year to create a vaccine.

2) Politicians must do better. Should schools close to protect the elderly? Is it worth destroying our freedom to fight an epidemic? These are questions for politicians, not scientists.

When the Black Death killed millions, no one expected the King to have the answers. Governments today have the tools to fight the virus, but many have failed miserably.

In the US, populists turned to conspiracy theories. In Britain, early blunders increased the death toll. One thing is clear: politicians must learn from their mistakes.

3) Protect the internet. When coronavirus struck, the world moved online. The internet did not crash under the pressure. Instead, it thrived. There were a few hiccups along the way – like the lawyer who appeared as a cat on Zoom – but the fact that it was possible at all is incredible.

The digital world was our saviour in 2020, but our reliance on the internet could be a source of disaster tomorrow. The next big threat might be a cyberattack, not a virus.

The transition from the physical to the virtual world happened with remarkable ease. Things might not go so smoothly the other way around.

4) Act together. While politicians floundered, scientists prevailed. They shared their knowledge, working together to fight Covid-19. Meanwhile, the world’s two biggest superpowers – the US and China – spent months accusing each other of spreading the virus. Today, vaccine nationalism is a new source of conflict.

In this emergency, global cooperation is about more than just altruism. As long as the virus continues to mutate, no country will ever be truly safe. Working together helps everyone.

5) Plan ahead now. First, leaders should fix the obvious problems: they should hire more doctors and nurses to care for patients and buy more beds for them to sleep on.

Then, they should think about the future. As Harari himself writes: “If a new virus jumps from a bat to a human in a poor village in some remote jungle, within a few days that virus can take a walk down Wall Street.”

The world needs a global body to prevent pandemics. A skeleton already exists – the World Health Organization – but it needs more money and more power.

If global leaders implement these changes now, tomorrow could be the start of a brighter chapter.

Has the Covid-19 tragedy left the world a better place?

After the storm

Yes, say some. Yuval Noah Harari has neatly identified what the world got wrong during the pandemic. If global leaders come together to fix these problems now, and continue to support the work of scientists, the world will undoubtedly be a better place. The pandemic caused disruption and heartache, but it also showed people everywhere just how resilient many of our systems are.

No, say others. There is no redeeming feature of this disaster. More than 2.5 million people have died. Countless others have lost their loved ones, their jobs and their very means of survival. The pandemic exposed ineptitude and ill will all over the world. And as the vaccine wars continue, politicians worldwide show no sign of working together to prevent future crises.

You Decide

  1. Was it worth going into lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus?
  2. Are pandemics the biggest threat the world faces today?

Activities

  1. Write a short paragraph describing a day in your life at the beginning of March 2020. Then, write another paragraph about your day today. What has changed?
  2. In groups, choose a country that you think has either done a very good or very bad job of managing coronavirus. Then prepare a presentation explaining what the government did well, what went wrong, and what lessons they can learn. Use the expert links to help you.

Some People Say...

“The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation - a force for construction and destruction.”

Jonathan Haidt (1963 – ), American psychologist and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that scientists and politicians have better tools to fight a virus today than at any time in the past. Even 100 years ago, a full lockdown would have led many to the point of starvation. Today, automation means that machines, rather than virus-carrying people, can produce many of the essential items we need. In 1840, an astonishing 70% of the US workforce were involved in agriculture. Now that figure stands at just 1.3%, putting far fewer essential workers at risk.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds whether the mass surveillance used to track the pandemic has come at an unacceptable cost to individual privacy. In his article, Harari warns that digital dictatorships are a real risk today. He suggests three basic data rules: firstly, that collecting data should be about helping people not controlling them, secondly, that citizens should scrutinise the government as the government watches citizens and thirdly, that health data should not be collected by the police.

Word Watch

Yuval Noah Harari
An Israeli historian, philosopher and best-selling author. His book on the history of humankind, Sapiens, has been translated into 60 languages.
Black Death
A bubonic plague outbreak and the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, killing 75 to 200 million people in the 14th Century.
Conspiracy theories
In February 2020, Former US President Donald Trump said the virus would disappear “like a miracle” and that the Democrats were using it as a “hoax” to damage him.
Vaccine nationalism
In January a row broke out between Britain and the EU over supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Altruism
Selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. Harari points out it is in everybody’s best interests to eradicate Covid-19 worldwide, not just in individual countries.
Wall Street
The heart of New York’s financial district. It is home to the world’s two largest stock exchanges.
World Health Organization
The WHO is the agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. It was criticised last year for being too slow to declare a global emergency.
Ineptitude
Lack of skill or ability.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.