What will the world be like once the COVID-19 emergency is over? According to Yuval Noah Harari, this period of crisis is putting us in front of two particularly important choices that will greatly influence what comes “after”: on the one hand, the choice between totalitarian surveillance and the empowerment of citizens; on the other, the choice between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.
The first choice is not only discussed in Harari’s insight, but responds to a concern raised by many voices: what power and role will new surveillance technologies play once the pandemic is declared over? The best known case is that of China, but Israel has also decided to use technology (specifically, the technology used in the fight against terrorism) to track people affected by COVID-19. We can legitimately wonder whether this use of the technology will remain after the COVID-19 emergency, and what consequences this will have on fundamental rights.
From this point of view, the epidemic could represent an important watershed in the history of surveillance and rights: it could normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools also in Western democracies, just as it could mark the definitive passage from “above the skin” to “under the skin” surveillance, in Harari’s words.
The point – continues Harari – is that none of us knows exactly how we are currently under surveillance, and how we will be shortly. If in the last few years we have witnessed several battles on privacy and data protection, the COVID-19 crisis could mark a turning point, imposing a choice between privacy and health in which privacy would hardly be the best. On balance, it is a false choice.
But what could be the alternative? According to Harari, when people are informed about and with scientific facts, and when they trust the public authorities telling them these facts, citizens can respect the measures imposed even without an Orwellian surveillance system:
A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.
For citizens to be motivated and well-informed, however, trust is needed: in science, in public authorities, in the media. This may not have been helped by the infodemic created following the outbreak of the emergency; but if we take advantage of this situation to rebuild clear information and trust on both sides, the COVID-19 epidemic could turn into a fundamental proof of citizenship.
If the first choice that Harari writes about has an internal focus on individual states, the second one is on a supranational and global level: what will prevail, the disunity and nationalisms that we have already seen emerge, or global solidarity? According to Harari, also in this case the COVID-19 crisis may present itself as an opportunity:
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.