Nice but nescient: some missing issues in Professor Harari’s argument in The world after coronavirus

March 30, 2020

Qusthan Firdaus

Professor Yuval Noah Harari wrote an opinion column entitled “Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus” at the Financial Times on 20 March 2020 (online edition).

His argument proceeds as following. There are two necessary preferences in dealing with the Covid-19 global pandemic crisis. First, the option between citizen empowerment and totalitarian surveillance. On the one hand, the former means making people to believe science, media reports and authorities. It also means monitoring the blood pressure and body temperature insofar as the data would empower citizens in making better decisions during the crisis, pushing the government to be more accountable on its policies, and it does not imply the so called “all-powerful government” — let alone its meaning to Professor Harari. Therefore, healthcare experts and scientific data should outweigh self-serving politicians and groundless conspiracy theories in the mind of most citizens.

On the other hand, the latter refers to obliging people to constantly check and report their medical conditions and body temperature, monitoring their smartphones, face recognition, identifying their physical contacts and tracking their movements. On this option, the very root of the problem is a wrong choice between health and privacy. He believes that we should and can enjoy both of them even in the time of crisis.

Second, the preference between global solidarity and nationalist isolation. Professor Harari calls for the sharing of information on the global level. It requires two things. First, it should work on the basis of a spirit of trust and global co-operation. Second, a global agreement on allowing some people such as scientists, journalists, business people, politicians and doctors to keep travelling across borders.

However, there is an obstacle against those requirements viz., the absence of global leadership. The US ignites a scandal by offering USD 1 billion to purchase the monopoly rights of vaccine potentially produced by a Germany based pharmaceutical company instead. Last but not least, he draws an option for humanity either to take the path of global solidarity or heading to disunity among nations in dealing with the Covid-19.

Data protection

Having discussed his argument, I consider some missing affairs. First, his idea on the citizen empowerment could have been applied if all countries have been using big data, possessing highly reliable data centres, and enacting a data protection law resembling the EU GDPR. However, this is not realistic as most countries do not have tier-1 certified data centres while the private date protection is merely the issue of well developed countries since the enactment of EU GDPR.

Furthermore, China is home for 87 certified data centres according to the UpTime Institute in which case Beijing hosts 20 of them. Even Wuhan, the initial epicentre of Covid-19 outbreak, has one data centre. It means what Professor Harari calls as “totalitarian surveillance” is not merely a matter of political ideology such as communism but also the availability of infrastructure namely certified data centres. Both communism and capitalism require good quality of medical and ICT infrastructures to survive under the threat of global pandemic of Covid-19.

Without a fair, reasonable act of data protection and reliable data centres, Professor Harari’s recommendation of citizen empowerment would be meaningless, and it would be misused either by the government or predatory companies.

The affluence

Moreover, his second dichotomy between global solidarity and nationalist isolation is unfortunately limited to the call on institutional levels. It is an irony to notice that the CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) in which case financing various research to discover the vaccine of Covid-19; is financially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, several governments and the Wellcome Trust. Their website (cepi.net) exposes an interesting information. To advance one vaccine out of 11 epidemic infectious diseases is to spend $2.8 billion as the minimum average cost. Despite Bill’s tendency to support the idea of population control (as an euphemism of de-population), he is merely one out of more than 2,100 billionaires and approximately 46 million millionaires living in our life time.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that those affluent individuals would have given their money to strengthen the so called global solidarity to defeat those 11 diseases. It is equal to raising $30.8 billion, and thereby constituting approximately a third of Jeff Bezos’ and Bill Gates’ total net worth ($114 billion and $92.3 billion respectively); 45% of Warren Buffett’s total net worth ($67.6 billion); 51% of Bernard Arnault’s total net worth ($60 billion); and 53% of Mark Zuckerberg’s total net worth ($57.7 billion) as of 23 March 2020 according to Bloomberg.com. We can lengthen this list to other 455 richest people if we wish to put more pressure. However, I am afraid most of them are way to stingy to donate. The less billionaires and millionaires pledging substantial amount of money for discovering the vaccine, the more we should push them to do so.

Furthermore, we should thank The Giving Pledge. It is an organisation established by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for convincing 200 philanthropists to dedicate half of their wealth for charitable causes per May 2019. Yet, their website (givingpledge.org) contains no single word about Corona nor Covid-19 as of 23 March 2020. I am afraid those billionaires and millionaires share Bill Gates’ view on de-population. Actually, they owe their abundant wealth to the rest of 7.2 billion people on Earth who are less advantageous to make a similar fortune. Great financial power comes with great social responsibility. Letting people die due to Covid-19 is arguably similar to killing them. This radical action is highly necessary to accelerate eight steps for making the vaccine viz., a prototype development, animal trials, three phases of human trials, regulatory approval, mass production and public access. If those affluent people consider their giving as an investment, then their return on investment might be located on the phase of mass production and public access.

Research Ethics

We need another radical argument in favour of anticipating the next pandemic. To depict the post-coronavirus world is to examine the research ethics in virology, if such document is available. Nonetheless, the website of World Society for Virology for example does not expose such document. Given that this international organisation for virologists is established in 2017, I suspect they do not have established a cogent document of research ethics. If this is the case, then it is likely that virologists have been researching many viruses without ethical boundaries though there must be some legal approvals from authorities. It tells us how reckless virology is as an academic discipline. Insofar as no research ethics in virology, we should suspect that SARS-CoV-2 is a bio weapon. By thinking in this way, we could at least be more optimistic that the real vaccine is already available out there.

Conclusion

With respect to Professor Harari, his argument is nice and compelling to the extent most, if not all, countries have been enacting a legal rule for private data protection, reliable certified data centres, justified research ethics in virology, and the idea of global solidarity involves the affluence. Otherwise, his argument is nice but nescient.

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Tentang Penulis

Qusthan Abqary - I am a lecturer and teach some subjects such as Ethics and Social Awareness, Corporate Governance and Ethics, Business Ethics, Critical and Creative Thinking and others. My research interests are political philosophy, ethics, peace, and war.

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