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A Historian Looks Ahead At A Transformed Post-Pandemic World


So what will the world look like after the great 2020 pandemic? We are changing the way we work, live, communicate and what we expect from our governments in response to this crisis. And we're joined now by author, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, from his home near Jerusalem, who has some thoughts.

Welcome to the program.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: Hello. It's good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have said we are right now involved in a vast social experiment during this pandemic. Tell me what you mean.

HARARI: Well, there are experiments everywhere. Like, my university just moved into all its courses online, which it thought of doing for years but never did anything. And now we have this huge experiment. What happens when you move an entire university online? Similarly, you know, there have been talk about universal basic income for several years. And now the U.S. government is going to do it. What happens when hundreds of millions of people start working from home, instead of going to the office or to the factory? So all these are basically social experiments on a massive scale that will change the world. We can't predict what will happen because the main thing is that we have so many choices. It's not like there is just one predetermined outcome to this epidemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we've seen these massive fissures in society that we've always known were there but have been exposed now. The sort of have and have-nots, the gig workers, those who have no protections devastated by the fallout from this pandemic in this so-called modern economy.

HARARI: Yes, I think, again, that this crisis can to result in the destruction of organized labor completely. Or we can just reverse the trend and people realizing the importance of having a social safety net, of having a government-sponsored health care system. It can go either way. This is the most important thing people need to realize is that we have a lot of choices. And very important decisions are going to be taken in the next month or two. It's a short window of opportunity when history is moving into - in fast forward. It's accelerating. Governments are willing to experiment to try ideas which previously would have sounded crazy. And once this is over, the order will solidify again.

You know, whoever is president in 2021, it's basically like coming to a party after the party is over. And the only thing left to do is to wash the dirty dishes. And the next few months will be - you know, the government will hand out trillions of dollars. So it's extremely crucial to understand the choices we are facing and to focus attention not just on the limited health issues of how many new cases or how many ventilators in New York but to focus on the political level because the choices we face are in the end political of what is more important and who should get the resources.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it was fascinating to see this editorial in the Financial Times in the U.K. - that's a pretty conservative publication. And it called for radical reforms, governments being more active in the economy, seeing public services as investments and not liabilities, redistribution of wealth, basic income - as you mentioned - wealth tax. It took a pandemic. But what does that tell you?

HARARI: It tells me that, again, the situation is extremely fluid. That conviction that people held for years and decades and seemed to be completely set in stone can actually be overturned very quickly in such a situation. And the thing is that in most countries, politicians have been taken completely by surprise. They didn't prepare for this kind of thing. They don't have blueprints in the drawers - what to do. So it's a rare opportunity when you can actually make them change their minds and try something that in normal conditions they wouldn't think about. But it can go both ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say, what are you concerned about? What should we be concerned about in how our governments respond to this crisis?

HARARI: One concern is the rise of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Emergencies are notorious for that. People are afraid for their lives. The economy is collapsing, so people are - wish that there would be some strong leader who knows everything and can take care of us. And we see it happening in some places around the world, like Hungary, to some extent in my home country of Israel. So we could go in an authoritarian direction, even in a totalitarian direction because there is now this need, this cry to monitor everything, to surveil everything. And we could see the introduction of new surveillance systems even in democracies which will not go away once the emergency is over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we've seen that in Israel, for example, where they're tracking people with COVID-19 in ways that are worrying for some.

HARARI: Yeah, very worrying, especially because the agency doing it is the secret service and not the health care system. I mean, I'm not against surveillance, per se, but it's very important who is doing the surveillance, who's getting the data and whether the surveillance goes both ways. I mean, surveillance can always go both ways, not just government monitoring citizens but also citizens monitoring governments. I'm very worried about the situation when the government starts collecting enormous amounts of private information while its own decision-making process remains opaque. I mean, it's very important that the governments also in such a time would be closely monitored by parliament, by citizens, by the media. And it's not like they can just issue whatever emergency decrees they want.

So this is one big worry on the level of individual countries and then even bigger worries what's happening on the international level because so far, we have seen a really disastrous lack of leadership in the world, like there is no adults in the room. There is no global plan of how to tackle the health emergency or the economic crisis. And we are - we haven't seen the worst of it yet. I think the worst would come when the epidemic and the economic crisis hits developing countries in Central and South America, in Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. can have a rescue package of $2 trillion, but Ecuador or Egypt or Bangladesh can't. So the question is, when and if we will see a global plan, how to tackle both the epidemic and the resulting economic crisis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many questions yet to be answered. That's historian Yuval Noah Harari. He's also the author of "Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind" and "21 Lessons for the 21st Century." Thank you very much.

HARARI: Thank you. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.