The Current

Historian Yuval Noah Harari says we can choose what the world looks like when the pandemic is over

Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari speaks with The Current's Matt Galloway about how history will record the COVID-19 pandemic.

'We'll be different, but it's not predetermined. It's up to us to decide,' Harari says

Israeli author, historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari shared his thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic may shape our future. (Kristoff Van Accom/Belga/AFP/Getty Images)

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Historian Yuval Noah Harari says important choices will be made during this pandemic — and those choices will have huge implications for our societies.

Harari is a professor at the University of Jerusalem and the author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Last month, Harari wrote a piece in Financial Times about what the world will look like after the pandemic.  

Here is part of his conversation with The Current's Matt Galloway.

You've written that people are basically guinea pigs in some sort of social experiment that would have never been possible without this pandemic. What do you mean by that?

We are now reluctantly, inevitably, conducting immense social experiments on billions of people. 

So it's things like moving entire universities online.

In my university, they have been discussing doing some courses online for 20 years now, and they never did anything. And now, in one week, they move the entire university online because they had to. 

This is basically a huge experiment. Nobody knows what the outcome will be. 

Some things are working well. Other things are not working so well. But whatever the results, when this is over, we probably won't go back to where we were half a year ago. Things will change. 

You look at the universal basic income idea. So it's been going around for quite some time, but it wasn't implemented by any government — not on a large scale anyway. And now you see the U.S. government, a conservative Republican administration, basically adopting universal basic income, at least for the duration of the crisis. 

The results of this experiment will change the economic and social system maybe for years to come. I think, therefore, we should be very focused not just on the epidemic itself, but also on the political situation, because in the next month or two, politicians are going to make extremely important decisions allocating billions and billions of dollars [and] changing the basic rules of the job market, of the education system. 

Whatever comes after that — like if you're elected prime minister in 2021 — it's like coming after the party is over and the only thing you have left to do is to wash the dirty dishes. 

The big decisions will be taken in the next one, two, three months and they will shape the world for, maybe, a decade or many decades.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says grim new milestones are about to be reached as the deadly pandemic pushes into almost every country. 2:56

This idea of a pandemic fast forwarding the historical process is fascinating because, to your point, whether it's technology, whether it's the universal basic income or how we think of work, those decisions are being made and the rules are being rewritten as we go. 

How do you think we will look coming out of this? 

We'll be different, but it's not predetermined. It's up to us to decide. 

Again, we need to make decisions, but we shouldn't think that there is just one right answer. 

For instance, we need to decide between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment.

I hope we choose citizen empowerment, but I don't know. 

Has history shown you that that's possible in crises past?

Certainly. You look at the two last big crises we faced of this kind — we had the Ebola crisis in 2014 and we had the global financial crisis of 2008.

In both these cases, the international community cooperated and succeeded in preventing the worst outcome. 

Ebola was contained and the worst fears will never materialize because countries from all over the world sent help to the most affected countries in West Africa. 

And with the global financial crisis, even though it was very severe, again, the worst outcomes were prevented because the major economies — the leading countries — cooperated to formulate a global plan of action. 

We can do it again, but for this we need leadership and we'd need global solidarity. And so far, we haven't seen enough of it.

You talked about the changes at your university and said that you think that they'll stick. There are a lot of people who are trying to figure out what teaching is going to look like from home. Those are changes that aren't just going to exist within this window that we're in right now?

It's impossible to tell in advance. 

You know, universities suddenly discovered, "Hey, you can do that." And then they can make decisions like, "OK, so now we can hire a faculty in India and pay a tenth of what we pay Canadian academics and they can teach online." 

Or they can decide that overseas students can be accepted, but they don't actually have to come to Toronto, Vancouver. They can stay where they are and just take courses online. 

Personally, I think these two decisions would be wrong decisions, dangerous decisions. Certainly in terms of students, part of the experience of going to university is the community. 

When I went to Oxford, meeting the other students and going clubbing in London was at least as important as going to the classes. And I don't want to see it disappear, but it could happen. 

We have to be aware that this crisis could change the face of education, the job market, everything.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Written by Justin Chandler. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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