We’ve known that pandemics are possible. We’ve known that climate change is threatening all of us and that there are ecosystems on the verge of destruction. There’s enough blame to go around, says leading futurist and OneShared.World founder Jamie Metzl in an interview with Jakub Dymek.
Jakub Dymek: If we were to play the blame game, who’s the first to be blamed for the coronavirus pandemic?
Jamie Metzl: Oh, there’s enough blame to go around. Number one though is squarely on China. Whatever the origins of the pandemic are, in the critical few weeks, when it could have been suppressed the easiest and in the quickest of ways, the Chinese authorities, primarily in Wuhan, did everything they could to silence the whistleblowers and cover everything up. They then systematically destroyed evidence and prevented WHO authorities from coming to Wuhan for nearly a month! And as a result of this catastrophic failure, what could have been a stove fire, had become the fire that lit the kitchen first and the whole house eventually.
There is also a very open question about the origin of the pandemic…
…and we will come back to that. But who else is there on “the list of culprits”, as you see it?
The United States failed in many ways but a few particularly stand out. Domestically, our government didn’t ring the alarm bell and launch an emergency response soon enough. Instead of leading a response, President Donald Trump pushed an incredibly damaging disinformation campaign that undermined our response and undermined trust in our health professionals and government institutions when it was the most essential. But the US failed globally as well: let us remember it was the US that had played the leading role in eradicating smallpox, fighting with Ebola and other pandemics. Over decades, the world has come to rely on a smart and strong US global response to crises like this. When that did not happen this time around it created a dangerous vacuum.
I’m a WHO adviser and big believer in the mission and work of the WHO, but it failed here too.
Why did WHO fail in your opinion?
It didn’t sound the alarm early enough. It could have sounded the alarm earlier, but we need to ask why. The WHO is not mandated to have its own full and independent surveillance mechanism, so it is forced by design to rely on the information provided by the states. Garbage in, garbage out. When China provided so much untruthful and partial information to WHO, that certainly hampered WHO’s ability to sound the alarm. In an ideal world, WHO would have sent early responders to Wuhan immediately. And certainly WHO wanted to do that, but they weren’t allowed to visit Wuhan or even given visas for nearly a month – while China was destroying samples silencing internal voices of dissent.
All of this is just one manifestation of a bigger problem. We live in a world where sovereign states, especially powerful states like China, have the ability to block this kind of investigation. The question we have to ask then is what kind of global health authority do we want and need to effectively fight pandemics like these and better address other global public health crises.
Lastly, we have to acknowledge that the world has failed. We’ve known that these pandemics are possible. We’ve known that climate change is threatening all of us and that there are ecosystems on the verge of destruction. We’ve known of so many global problems that remain unaddressed as the risks grow.
Did you watch HBO’s “Chernobyl” perhaps?
It’s funny, because I didn’t watch it when it was originally released, but I am right now.
Many people when it came out have concluded, wrongly I think, that this is a show about a particularly undemocratic, authoritarian, Soviet problem – that such a chain of bad decisions, misinformation, negligence and poor judgement would be something impossible in a free and open society. And yet here we are.
No political system has a monopoly on righteousness. In the COVID-19 crisis, we have an authoritarian system, China, that failed in the first phase and then massively improved its response. And we have the US, a free and democratic society, albeit one that had lurched dangerously towards populism, that responded poorly. Some of the countries that performed best in response to COVID have as different political cultures and systems as New Zealand and Vietnam. We cannot take it for granted that one system is inherently better when it comes to such crises. We’ve got to learn from each other but also make sure we deploy our best societal values to address crises like these.
You’ve written in your CNN piece some time ago, that the national governments have failed us precisely because of what we pay them to do. Would you care to elaborate?
Sure, but let me take a little step back first. The human species has not always been organized in the form of a nation state – it was only after the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia that a number of European leaders collectively decided that national states would be how we organize our life. And through European dominance and colonialism this system was exported and implemented in a big part of our world. That system proved unstable over time, culminating in two world wars. That is why in San Francisco in 1945 we created this whole overlay of the UN and associated bodies designed to temper the excesses of the world of competing states. But because these institutions were created, funded and controlled by states, they were unable to fulfil the visions of their founders and framers.
And we’re back to nation states again.
Yes, this is why we live in the world of nation states. And when they become too strong again the problem arises: the reason we didn’t have a WHO empowered to respond effectively to this crisis is because we’ve hired our national representatives to take care of our national interests, and that is what they’ve done even at the expense of our collective interests. That same paradigm exists with climate change, weapons of mass destruction and mostly every other global issue. Up to this day we are unable to balance our narrower and broader interests in a way that might better optimize our well-being.
However, an idea for a supranational global government is inherently terrifying for a large part of the population. Even peaceful and benevolent institutions such as the EU generate plenty of resentment. How do you propose to promote even more multilateralism and globalization, given how popular the populist reaction to these things has become in the last couple of years?
Firstly, let’s say this out loud: I’m against a global government, at least for now. Many people advocating for this are reaching out to me, but I always tell them I think it’s a bad idea. It took two world wars for people to realize that we needed a new structure to complement our world of states. Creating an entirely new global government from scratch is a bigger step than is possible at this stage, and trying too hard would detract us from fixing the systems we already have. We also have no guarantee that any new ‘global government’ would be any safer and stable than what we have today – and plenty of arguments that it could be even less stable.
I believe, however, that an idea for a new global framework could spread and adapt like a virus, but hopefully without killing its host. And this idea that I propose is the mutual responsibilities of our deep global interdependence. Every organization and government in the world can and probably should still advocate for its own constituency and citizens, but these organizations have to incorporate in their DNA an idea that we have to balance our narrow and particular interests with our broader collective interests.
Our species went very rapidly from small bands of roving nomads to a global society with a capacity to transform or end all life on earth, but we haven’t come up with politics to match. And this mismatch is what we need to address in a very practical sense.
As we know from history, such models nevertheless required some kind of hegemony or imperial power. What to do about the fact that China today is actually trying to remake international bodies to work in China’s favor?
China has big aspirations, maybe the aspiration to replace the US as some other form of hegemon. If our world continues on this road, we will all be worse off in the end, including whoever wins this battle for hegemony. China is not on board – just as the US under President Trump wasn’t – with the model of shared responsibility that I’m advocating for. But China has a lot to lose if we don’t tackle collective issues like climate change and global pandemics. There’s a self-interest argument to be made here about why we need to come together and solve common global problems.
Since you’ve mentioned it already, I have to ask. You have been an early and vocal proponent of the thesis that the novel coronavirus had originated in a Chinese lab. Why do you insist on that?
There’s this famous quote in Casablanca, where Rick is sitting in his bar the night after his lost love Ilsa happens to walk in, heartbroken and says “of all the gin joints, in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk in mine”.
Of all the places in all the world, where a deadly bat coronavirus broke out, Wuhan is the only one level-4 virology institute in China that had a study studying coronavirus, including the most closely related viruses to SARS-COV-2. The lab has a very bad safety record. Then there’s this massive cover-up operation where whistleblowers are silenced or imprisoned, samples and records are destroyed, and international investigative efforts are undermined. Occam’s razor certainly makes me believe the lab leak hypothesis is the most credible explanation. I’ve compiled the evidence on my jamiemetzl.com website so people can judge for themselves.
Do you believe it is a bioweapon?
No, nothing of the sort. But it also seems unlikely that it was some sort of natural jump from the wild. If it were, we would likely see some evidence pointing to that. With SARS in 2003 it was relatively easy to trace all the jumps. Here, not at all. And this virus emerges fully adapted for humans. There is, I am guessing, a 10-15% chance this is something that happened in the wild, but the lab hypothesis seems much far more probable to me.
I’ve been calling repeatedly for a fully transparent, unrestricted, international forensic inquiry into every possible hypothesis about the origins of the pandemic. And this would require full access to Chinese samples, data, records, and scientists. I’m worried that the investigation by WHO, mandated by the UN, has so far not met these standards.
The cover-up could have taken place regardless of the origin of the virus, so the fact of it would not in itself be an argument supporting the ‘lab-origin’ hypothesis.
It’s also not a defense against it. If there’s no lab access and records have been destroyed, you cannot say that gets China off the hook. It means we need a thorough investigation. There’s over a million dead, trillions of dollars of economic costs. We need answers so we can better understand and address COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic.
And we need to be honest about the role of power politics here. If this pandemic had started in Congo or Chad, what would have happened?
These countries would be forced into compliance.
Absolutely. We cannot pressure China like we could Congo or Chad, but neither can we just go as if this is business as usual. This was a fully avoidable pandemic and China has a lot to answer to, just like the US has a lot to answer to. We have to look at everything.
How and why do you think this lab hypothesis has gained so little traction in mainstream science publications then?
I don’t want to make any wild conspiracy theories here, but certainly people I know in the scientific community are afraid of taking this risk of discussing alternative explanations publicly. Some of the most prominent scientists in the world have told me privately they believe a lab leak is the most likely but don’t want to put their careers at risk joining a toxic debate where there is only limited evidence available. Science is data-driven – so in the absence of any meaningful data, arguments like this necessarily become more speculative. Because the Trump administration and the Chinese government politicized this science, many researchers are afraid of being compromised in one way or another. Most journalists rely on scientists as essential sources for these kinds of stories and often cannot write stories without them.
I’m not saying I know everything. I don’t. I would love to be wrong and find that the virus did not escape from a lab and China behaved perfectly responsibly. If this is the case, let them fully open their records so we can see for ourselves.
And regardless of the answer about the origin of the virus, we still have to take care of our environment, address ecosystem destruction, and fix the other biggest problems that made this pandemic possible. Whatever the origins, we still need to strengthen WHO and global pathogenic surveillance and shore up public health infrastructure in the poorest countries and help vulnerable populations the world over. We need to do all these things while asking the tough questions.
This quest is so much harder, because genuine conspiracy theorists have also promoted the same idea of the virus’ origin from the very beginning.
This is a big challenge, but even a broken analog clock tells the right time twice a day. I try to put these things aside and as with everything in life, apply my best analysis based on information that I have. The only way we’re going to know if we’re right or wrong is this transparent and international investigation. We have to prioritize transparency, openness, and accountability and make sure we don’t align ourselves with any forms of racism or intolerance.
Do you think ideas of globalization, free trade and a market-oriented world order took a hit in 2020?
Definitely globalization is not ending and free trade is not ending, but the world is certainly shifting, virtualizing as we overcome certain dimensions of distance. Supply chains are being reconfigured and some of the physical infrastructure in manufacturing would be moved geographically closer to one another. It could be we won’t have one globalization, but maybe we’re going to have two globalizations with two competing competitive ecosystems, one centered around China and the other the US. Both will be global in a way and there will be some overlap between them. Others will need to figure out how to position themselves relative to these poles.
I believe – and many actual experts in the field of psychiatry and psychology agree – that this virtualization of our existence brings with it a creeping crisis of anxiety, depression and suicide.
Human beings have a biological need for physical human companionship. And now we are fulfilling part of that need through these virtual connections, but, biologically, we need more physical contact. We’re not virtual beings. But we will be increasingly more virtual in the future. And we are going to adapt to this reality that will become… well, the reality. Our future will be a hybrid between virtual and physical, but it will be far more virtual than our ancestors could have imagined and we will get used to that.
If we had taken our roaming nomad ancestors from their prairies and steppes and put them in modern apartment buildings, they would have gotten incredibly depressed. It may be just that the modern generation is going through so rapid a transformation from a more physical world to a more virtual one that it is discombobulation for us. We may be the transitional generation because we’re in a position where we can still compare these two worlds. It could very well be that the younger generation will just see this as the new normal? Maybe they will compensate for our physical company needs in other ways. There’s very little that is absolutely fixed in what it means to be a human.
But the psychological toll of isolation is real.
For now. Again, people born into this reality won’t compare this to our previous reality. Pre-COVID times had their psychological toll as well. Most of us were not referencing some pre-industrial world, thinking “we’re really depressed now, wouldn’t it be better to be nomads?” The broader context of our lives for most people is just a non-negotiable reality.
I live in New York City. I don’t spend much time negotiating whether cities exist. Past generations may have. But now I just live in a city and this is it.
And with technology and virtuality it is increasingly the same – is what you’re saying? OK, let’s dwell on it just a little more. I know you’re strongly against romanticizing the past, which some people do. But this particular age we live in has brought us an exponential change. In the way we communicate, we conduct our daily chores, how we meet people. Even how our romantic and sexual life looks is dependent on on-line technologies. Times of great technological progress and great uncertainty tend to produce tyrants and demagogues of the worst kind. You are not bothered by that?
We’re in a period of exponential change. Unless we destroy the world with nuclear weapons, a human induced climate disaster, or some other means, we will always now be in a period of exponential change because of the super convergence of technologies. That is disorienting for people because our brains came of age in the savannas of Africa, where our ancestors survived thanks to very practical and linear thinking. We are going to have to adapt to a level and speed of change that juxtaposes against the biology of our brains.
These revolutionary technologies can very clearly be abused. That’s why we all have a huge responsibility to educate ourselves and others about where our societies are headed and what kind of world we’re building so we can join the process of figuring out the best individual and collective paths forward. In my opinion democratic societies are in better positions to do that than non-democratic ones. But to do that, these societies need to work. Denmark, for example, has a very thoughtful framework for national consultations on complex issues. My work on the future of human genetic engineering also calls for collaborative efforts to make sure our most cherished values can guide the application of our most powerful technologies. Small groups of experts and elites making decisions for everybody will inevitably agitate people and not work. If somebody comes along and puts a name on that agitation – like Donald Trump did – people will follow him or her, whether this analysis is right or wrong.
You do not believe in the moderation of that exponential change?
I do not, because it simply is not possible. It’s too hard to slow technological change. Better to create strong ethics and governance systems to make sure it is used in ways that optimize benefits and minimize harms.
So if that’s impossible and there are worst- and best-case scenarios where are we headed? What is the worst-case scenario?
And the best?
All of us, particularly those currently the most vulnerable, thriving in this post-scarcity, technologically advanced, connected society is certainly the best. Everything and anything in between are possible. These technologies don’t come with their own built in value system. We have to provide that. There’s a real danger of a widening technological divide, with haves and have-nots, where technology is used to oppress people as in Xinjiang, China today, and where most powerful technologies are used in abusive ways. On the other side, there are incredibly wonderful applications of technology: preventive and predictive healthcare, mitigating risks from early stages of life, technologies that will help us live longer, safer, and more creative and innovative lives.
But the trajectory we’re on is…
Right now, we’re on a dual-track. There are lots of amazing uses of technology that are helping us but we’re also seeing a dangerous trajectory of rising populism and all kinds of technology abuse. If we don’t want to be on that second path, now is also the moment to redouble our efforts. This is why I and people from over 115 countries are advocating for a new global framework based on the mutual responsibilities of interdependence. Our movement is called OneShared.World and we hope people will learn about and join us. In many ways, it feels like we’re all at a historical juncture equivalent to 1918, where the framework we’re going to choose will determine the future of the world in the most profound of ways.
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