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
These are not normal times, says Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his recent article "The World after Coronavirus." Cautioning that the world we now inhabit would change in perpetuity, the historian says that countries would have to make two major choices - one between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, and the other between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.
With technological boom and smart digital surveillance, countries have been observing and recording citizens' activities – the links we follow, the content we share – mostly to detect and prevent political dissent.
However, Harari says, we are about to see a watershed in the history of surveillance.
In a bid to fight the coronavirus outbreak, China is using numerous face-recognising cameras and monitoring people's smartphones, obliging people to report their body temperature and medical condition.
They can also track the number of contacts made by one person – calculating one's pandemic footprint.
Several countries have adopted surveillance technologies in the same attempt.
Despite the concerned parliamentary subcommittee's refusal, heading Israeli primer Benjamin Netanyahu deployed a surveillance technology – built for battling terrorists – to detect coronavirus patients, by using an "emergency decree".
Thus, Harari thinks, the pandemic would not only mark a transition from "over the skin" to "under the skin" surveillance, but it might also "normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them."
What Harari points out as the main problem of mass surveillance is that the public does not know how they are being monitored.
He explains the predicament through a thought experiment – a hypothetical country obliges people to wear biometric bracelets that would allow the government to record body temperature and heartrates round the clock. Analysing the obtained data, the government would know who is sick even before the patient realises it – seemingly a wonderful way to curb epidemics.
But here's the catch – Harari points out the fact that this mass of biometric data can let the government predict and manipulate the public. The same technology that detects coughs, may also detect laughter, a spiked heart rate could mean someone is excited, not sick – happy or angry – all these being biological phenomena.
Biometric information combined with browsing history could lay it out for governments or businesses, exposing everything about one's preference – a possible setting for selling a product or a politician, comments Harari.
He writes, "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."
The historian argues in his article that this kind of surveillance can be adopted as emergency and temporary measures only, but "temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies."
Bringing Israel as an example, he shows that the state of emergency declared by his country during the 1948 War of Independence was never declared "over" and many of the temporary measures adopted during that period are still in practice!
Harari warns when the coronavirus outbreaks come down to zero, "data-hungry governments" might still push for hoarding data, arguing that these would be necessary to tackle a second wave of coronavirus or any other outbreak.
The coronavirus crisis may just be the tipping point of our losing battle over privacy, Harari anticipates, "For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health."
At this point, Harari makes his case – it does not have to be one of the two choices for people.
He demonstrates that in recent weeks, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore were most successful in their efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak. And instead of using totalitarian surveillance, they did so by empowering their citizens – extensive testing, honest reporting, and creating a trusting environment for citizens to cooperate wilfully.
He adds, "A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population."
Placing trust in the right places is the way to go. The worldwide use of soaps for disinfecting is a case in point. Discovered by the scientists only in the 19th century, billions of people daily use soaps now because they understand how tiny organisms can cause diseases and how soaps kill those organisms – not because they are decreed by an authority.
To expand this kind of co-operation, Harari states, "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."
The writer also directs attention to a bright side of government surveillance.
Saying he has no objection to letting the government record his biometric data, he says that in return, he should also be able to access and analyse reliable statistics to draw inferences on a range of aspects – from his health condition and habits, to whether the government is being truthful and adopting the right policies.
He comments, "… remember that the same surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments."
In his article, Harari repeatedly urges people to trust scientific data, and alerts, "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."
Harari then goes over to the second dilemma that the world would be facing – national isolation or global solidarity? The writer says that global co-operation can bring resolutions to epidemics and the economic crisis stemming from them.
Sharing information is imperative – also an advantage humans have over viruses. Countries can share their lessons and findings for fighting the virus and to deal with the crisis. 'What an Italian doctor discovers in Milan in the early morning might well save lives in Tehran by evening," but for that, the writer marks, a spirit of co-operation and trust is also imperative.
Willingness to share information, trusting the received data and insights, a coordinated global effort to produce and fairly distribute medical equipment are some of the key steps that should be taken, suggests the writer.
He says, "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 equipment to a poorer country with many cases. Harari also suggests considering a similar global effort to create a pool of medical personnel.
He notes that countries cannot save their economy and supply chains individually either, and a fast global plan of action is needed in that regard.
A total worldwide travel suspension for months will devastate the economy, and Harari suggests reaching a global agreement on allowing essential travellers to cross borders: scientists, doctors, journalists, politicians, business people. And this has to be done by a careful pre-screening by their home countries which will make the receiving country more willing to accept them.
Harari strongly believes the world already needed an emergency meeting of global leaders in the past weeks – but all it got was a videoconference by G7 leaders resulting in no plans about the global crisis. With its current leadership, Harari is the opposite of hopeful about America taking the lead as it did during the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
The void in global leadership left by the US has to be filled by other countries, says Harari, or the epidemic will get harder to stop – also poisoning international relations for years to come.
The historian says, "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."