Yuval Noah Harari

The real big problem is not the virus, it’s the inner demon within human. We now see hatred… hatred for each other, other countries. If we allow this kind of hatred to spread, it will prevent us from dealing with the current crisis and poison internal relations for years to come.

The most likely and immediate danger is surveillance. Previously surveillance was above the skin… now it’s under the skin.

2 thoughts on “Yuval Noah Harari

  1. shinichi Post author

    E-Conclave Corona Series: Global solidarity only antidote to coronavirus, says historian Yuval Noah Harari

    Historian and author Yuval Noah Harari spoke at the second session of the India Today Group’s E-Conclave Corona Series where he explored what the world could look like once the novel coronavirus pandemic blows over

    India Today Web Desk


    He’s arguably the most famous historian in the world right now. He’s a written best-selling books that blend history and technology to explore the past, present and future of humanity. Today, Yuval Noah Harari spoke at the second session of the India Today Group’s E-Conclave Corona Series.

    Harari joined India Today Group’s Rahul Kanwal in a conversation that examined what the world could look like once the novel coronavirus pandemic blows over. Harari is known for authoring Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), all bestsellers that have investigated how we go to where we are right now and what the future holds for us. Here is what he said:


    – We are in a better situation compared to the pandemics in history. More importantly, we have all the scientific knowledge to stop this pandemic. We understand perfectly what is happening today. We are no longer blind and powerless. The big question is whether we know how to use our power responsibly.


    – When Ebola struck in 2014, the US led the efforts to stop the crisis. Similarly, in the 2008 economic downturn led the world. Now the US has resigned from its position in leading the country. Now, America *is* first. First in sick people, first in dead people. To develop a vaccine, we need countries to pool their resources together. To deal with the economic impact (of the novel coronavirus pandemic)… unless we have a global economic plan, we could have a global depression.

    – The world is losing confidence in American competence. People are looking at the United States and thinking, ‘Hey, if this is how they deal with… in their own country… maybe it’s good the US is not leading the world anymore.’


    – There is a lot to criticse about China’s initial response to the coronavirus crisis… We could have prevented the entire pandemic if China had been more open initially. But, generally speaking, I am happy to see China is helping other countries in dealing with this crisis. The ideal situation would be if countries realise you cannot rely on one country, one leader… we need to encourage global solidarity. The real big problem is not the virus, it’s the inner demon within human. We now see hatred… hatred for each other, other countries. If we allow this kind of hatred to spread, it will prevent us from dealing with the current crisis and poison internal relations for years to come.


    – The most likely and immediate danger is surveillance. Previously surveillance was above the skin… now it’s under the skin. Previously governments wanted to know where we went, we met. Now governments want to know what’s happening inside your body. Previously, governments could know you are watching video online, but didn’t know what you felt like. But imagine this kind of biometric surveillance that tracks your heartbeat, your body temperature… the person monitoring you can know how you feel like, your emotions. It could lead to a totalitarian regime that even George Orwell could not imagine.

    – It is possible to have both health and privacy… it should be possible with system. Yes, we need a system to monitor such pandemics… we should have a separate healthcare authority to be in-charge of this surveillance. The surveillance should also go both ways… it should not just be the government monitoring the people but also people monitoring the government.


    – At a time like this people when people are afraid for their lives, for their jobs, many of them dream about a strong powerful leader that knows everything and will protect us and they are willing to let go of all democratic checks and balances and just trust in one big leader. That’s extremely dangerous. First of all, because such a big leader will not leave once the crisis is over… there is always a new emergency coming.

    – Secondly, dictatorships are just not more effective than democracies at a time like this. People imagine that dictatorships are better because they can make decisions faster. But the problem is if this one man [the leader] took a wrong decision, usually he will never admit it. He will blame others and ask for even more power to deal with the others. In a democracy there are more involved in making decisions… so we see even in emergencies democracies work better than dictatorships.

    – For example, China — an authoritarian regime — dealt with the crisis relatively effectively, but so did South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, which are democracies. And according to some measures, these countries actually dealt with the crisis better than China without becoming dictatorships.


    – We might see a certain going back (in terms of economic globalisation and integration)… Many countries are now completely dependent in exports… and you can’t just produce everything on your own. I think we will see some restructuring of the global economic system, but I don’t see a complete collapse.


    – There will be some revision [with people’s relationship with religion]. The thing about religious leaders… they are not very good at stopping epidemics, that’s not their expertise. The real expertise of religious leaders is making excuses. They are very good [at that], it is what they do… they promise something, it doesn’t happen and they have best excuses on why it didn’t happen.

    So it may be the same with this crisis. They can’t really protect people from this disease but they are now working… inventing all kinds of stories and excuses… about why this disease is spreading. I think some people will be convinced with these excuses and will go on believing in these religious leaders… but I hope that at least some people will realise that if you have choose between a scientist who can actually cure you and a religious leader who is best at making excuses, it’s better to go with the scientist.


    I am not an expert on India [so can’t comment on the response]… but I think India faces an enormous challenge… In previous epidemics India was very hard hit… During the Spanish Flu epidemic, India was the hardest hit. I can’t comment on how the Indian government is responding because I don’t understand enough… but I would urge people to react not with hatred but with solidarity… both with other countries and especially with different communities within India.

    I was very worried about some stories i heard that some people are blaming the epidemic on minorities… on Muslim minorities… even saying that it’s a deliberate act of terrorism… this is complete nonsense, is extremely dangerous… we don’t need more hatred, we need solidarity, we need love between people.

    E-Conclave Corona Series is an online avatar of the India Today Group’s premier thought event, the India Today Concalve. The series will focus on what is turning out to be one of humanity’s greatest challenges — the Covid-19 pandemic.

  2. shinichi Post author

    Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus

    This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come

    Yuval Noah Harari


    Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation. 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 systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions. When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world. 

    Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times. 

    In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. 

    Under-the-skin surveillance

    In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this. One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks. 

    In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients. 

    This kind of technology is not limited to east Asia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently authorised the Israel Security Agency to deploy surveillance technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients. When the relevant parliamentary subcommittee refused to authorise the measure, Netanyahu rammed it through with an “emergency decree”.

    You might argue that there is nothing new about all this. In recent years both governments and corporations have been using ever more sophisticated technologies to track, monitor and manipulate people. Yet if we are not careful, the epidemic might nevertheless mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance. Not only because it might normalise 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. 

    Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin. 

    The emergency pudding

    One of the problems we face in working out where we stand on surveillance is that none of us know exactly how we are being surveilled, and what the coming years might bring. Surveillance technology is developing at breakneck speed, and what seemed science-fiction 10 years ago is today old news. As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The resulting data is hoarded and analysed by government algorithms. The algorithms will know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also know where you have been, and who you have met. The chains of infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether. Such a system could arguably stop the epidemic in its tracks within days. Sounds wonderful, right?

    The downside is, of course, that this would give legitimacy to a terrifying new surveillance system. If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry. 

    It is crucial to remember that anger, joy, boredom and love are biological phenomena just like fever and a cough. The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs. If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age. Imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.

    You could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. My home country of Israel, for example, declared a state of emergency during its 1948 War of Independence, which justified a range of temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation to special regulations for making pudding (I kid you not). The War of Independence has long been won, but Israel never declared the emergency over, and has failed to abolish many of the “temporary” measures of 1948 (the emergency pudding decree was mercifully abolished in 2011). 

    Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea. 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.

    The soap police

    Asking people to choose between privacy and health is, in fact, the very root of the problem. Because this is a false choice. 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 empowering citizens. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public. 

    Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population. 

    Consider, for example, washing your hands with soap. This has been one of the greatest advances ever in human hygiene. This simple action saves millions of lives every year. While we take it for granted, it was only in the 19th century that scientists discovered the importance of washing hands with soap. Previously, even doctors and nurses proceeded from one surgical operation to the next without washing their hands. Today billions of people daily wash their hands, not because they are afraid of the soap police, but rather because they understand the facts. I wash my hands with soap because I have heard of viruses and bacteria, I understand that these tiny organisms cause diseases, and I know that soap can remove them. 

    But to achieve such a level of compliance and co-operation, you need trust. People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and to trust the media. Over the past few years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. Now these same irresponsible politicians might be tempted to take the high road to authoritarianism, arguing that you just cannot trust the public to do the right thing. 

    Normally, trust that has been eroded for years cannot be rebuilt overnight. But these are not normal times. In a moment of crisis, minds too can change quickly. You can have bitter arguments with your siblings for years, but when some emergency occurs, you suddenly discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and you rush to help one another. Instead of building a surveillance regime, it is not too late to rebuild people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. We should definitely make use of new technologies too, but these technologies should empower citizens. I am all in favour of monitoring my body temperature and blood pressure, but that data should not be used to create an all-powerful government. Rather, that data should enable me to make more informed personal choices, and also to hold government accountable for its decisions. 

    If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic. Whenever people talk about surveillance, remember that the same surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments. 

    The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.

    We need a global plan

    The second important choice we confront is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation. 

    First and foremost, in order to defeat the virus we need to share information globally. That’s the big advantage of humans over viruses. A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the US 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. What an Italian doctor discovers in Milan in the early morning might well save lives in Tehran by evening. When the UK government hesitates between several policies, it can get advice from the Koreans who have already faced a similar dilemma a month ago. But for this to happen, we need a spirit of global co-operation and trust. 

    Countries should be willing to share information openly and humbly seek advice, and should be able to trust the data and the insights they receive. We also need a global effort to produce and distribute medical equipment, most notably testing kits and respiratory machines. Instead of every country trying to do it locally and hoarding whatever equipment it can get, a co-ordinated global effort could greatly accelerate production and make sure life-saving equipment is distributed more fairly. Just as countries nationalise key industries during a war, the human war against coronavirus may require us to “humanise” the crucial production lines. A rich country with few coronavirus cases should be willing to send precious equipment to a poorer country with many cases, trusting that if and when it subsequently needs help, other countries will come to its assistance. 

    We might consider a similar global effort to pool medical personnel. Countries currently less affected could send medical staff to the worst-hit regions of the world, both in order to help them in their hour of need, and in order to gain valuable experience. If later on the focus of the epidemic shifts, help could start flowing in the opposite direction. 

    Global co-operation is vitally needed on the economic front too. Given the global nature of the economy and of supply chains, if each government does its own thing in complete disregard of the others, the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis. We need a global plan of action, and we need it fast. 

    Another requirement is reaching a global agreement on travel. Suspending all international travel for months will cause tremendous hardships, and hamper the war against coronavirus. Countries need to co-operate in order to allow at least a trickle of essential travellers to continue crossing borders: scientists, doctors, journalists, politicians, businesspeople. This can be done by reaching a global agreement on the pre-screening of travellers by their home country. If you know that only carefully screened travellers were allowed on a plane, you would be more willing to accept them into your country. 

    Unfortunately, at present countries hardly do any of these things. A collective paralysis has gripped the international community. There seem to be no adults in the room. One would have expected to see already weeks ago an emergency meeting of global leaders to come up with a common plan of action. The G7 leaders managed to organise a videoconference only this week, and it did not result in any such plan. 

    In previous global crises — such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic — the US assumed the role of global leader. But the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader. It has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity. 

    This administration has abandoned even its closest allies. When it banned all travel from the EU, it didn’t bother to give the EU so much as an advance notice — let alone consult with the EU about that drastic measure. It has scandalised Germany by allegedly offering $1bn to a German pharmaceutical company to buy monopoly rights to a new Covid-19 vaccine. Even if the current administration eventually changes tack and comes up with a global plan of action, few would follow a leader who never takes responsibility, who never admits mistakes, and who routinely takes all the credit for himself while leaving all the blame to others. 

    If the void left by the US isn’t filled by other countries, not only will it be much harder to stop the current epidemic, but its legacy will continue to poison international relations for years to come. Yet every crisis is also an opportunity. We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity. 

    Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century. 


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