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Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus

This storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world. 

Healthcare, politics, economy, culture will be different andLo p the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.

There are 2 choices we will make in tackling this virus  over the next year that will determine the path over the rest of the century – writes Yuval Noah Herari has an outstanding article in the Fin Times

1. Surveillance – should there be privacy? 

2. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?

1. Surveillance – should there be privacy? 

In 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, 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. 

When you touch your phone to click a link – not only does big brother know what you’ve touched – but also knows your temperature and your pulse! 

This is an effective way of monitoring and beating this virus… but at what cost? 

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?

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. 

(Can they already do this by our activity on social media?)

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.

Trust citizens or force police state ? 

2. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?

Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems and will be solved effectively only by global co-operation. 

To defeat the virus we need to share information globally. 

 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. 

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. 

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. 

Posted on March 24, 2020

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