The coronavirus crisis could have been avoided because there was enough scientific information available to the world, according to Noam Chomsky. Recently, Chomsky spoke to me from his house in self-isolation. I am a close friend and collaborator for more than 14 years.
Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Known as the father of modern linguistics and the most influential intellectual alive, Chomsky is also an important figure in analytical philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. According to the “Arts and Humanities Citation Index,” between 1980 and 1992, Chomsky was the most cited living intellectual in that period and the eighth most cited source in all of history. The top 10 sources cited during the period were Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel, and Cicero.
Chomsky is a Emeritus Professor Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona. He is the author of more than 100 books.
José Santana: Humanity has many challenges, including global warming, the threats of a nuclear catastrophe, the immigration crisis, among others, but today we are facing an unprecedented phenomenon for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants: the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think this crisis could have been avoided? And what are its origins?
Noam Chomsky: The crisis could have been avoided. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, scientists knew that another coronavirus epidemic was likely, and that it could be a true pandemic. They also knew how to prepare for it, just as scientists today inform us that another serious pandemic is likely happen and they know how to prepare for it. But knowledge is not enough. Someone has to be willing to use it.
One candidate is Big Pharma. They make huge profits, thanks to monopoly price rights granted to them in the mislabeled “free trade agreements.” They have the scientific resources. But they are compromised by capitalist logic and therefore there is no profit in preparing for a future catastrophe. So the other alternative are the governments. They also have the resources, but they are blocked by the neoliberal plague that thinks that “the government is the problem,” as Reagan stated in the 1980s with his sparkly smile, which means that decisions have to be transferred from the government —which somehow must answer to the population— to the private corporate tyrannies that don’t answer to anyone. So progress in preventing such pandemics was stymied by capitalist logic and the devastating hammer of savage capitalism.
Then came the elections of few governments. Obama made some efforts to prepare, but they were blocked by private capital. Trump is the loyal servant. During his years in office, Trump systematically dismantled health-related government components and canceled programs that would have detected imminent dangers. Those components only serve for the population, not for the wealthy, the corporations and their private power, and are therefore expendable. As a result, the United States was exceptionally vulnerable and right now has the worst record in managing the pandemic.
JS: There is a lot of speculation about whether this pandemic was caused by warfare interests in biological weapons. Does this have any justification in reality?
NC: The only plausible possibility of those claims is that the virus may have accidentally escaped from a biological weapons laboratory. A possibility, but one that the scientific community largely rules out.
JS: Do you think COVID-19 developed as a consequence of climate change?
NC: Not directly. But global warming and environmental destruction have increased the contacts between humans and animals living deeply removed from uncultivated areas, increasing the probability of spreading new viruses for humans, as seems to have happened in this case.
JS: The health system of European countries shows to be better to that of the United States. However, in countries like Italy there was practically a collapse of the public health system that surpassed China in the cases of deaths caused by COVID-19. On April 1, Italy reported 814 deaths in a single day, an alarming figure for any nation in the world. Why did this happened?
NC: There are problems especially in northern Italy, where the epidemic is centered. On the one hand, the population is on average considerably older, more susceptible to the disease. There was also a major soccer game that brought many people together and caused the virus to spread rapidly.
JS: According to an article published in the New York Times on March 20, there is this quote from Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University: “We’re looking at something that’s catastrophic on a level that we have not seen for an infectious disease since 1918. And it’s requiring sacrifices we haven’t seen since World War II.” Weren’t we prepared for something like this in the United States?
NC: We should have been prepared, but we didn’t, for the reasons I mentioned: (1) capitalist logic, (2) the impact of the savage neoliberal variant of capitalism, and (3) the criminality of the Trump administration.
The United States is a total catastrophe due to the gang that runs Washington. They know very well how to blame everyone in the world except themselves, and they are responsible for the catastrophe. The United States is now the epicenter of the crisis. It is the only country that is so dysfunctional that it cannot even provide accurate data on deaths and infections to the World Health Organization.
In February, the pandemic is already raging. Everyone outside the United States recognizes it. Right in the middle of February, Trump comes out with his new budget for the next year. It’s worth taking a close look at it. Further cuts for the Center for Disease Control and other health-related parts of the government, to cut them further in the midst of a pandemic. Increases in funding for the fossil fuel industry, further subsidies to destroy organized human life not far down the road. And of course, further funding for the military, which is bloated and out of control, and further funding for Trump’s famous wall.
That tells you something about the nature of the sociopathic buffoons who are running the government and the country’s suffering from it.
Now they’re seeking desperately to blame somebody else, to blame China, blame the World Health Organization. And what they’re doing is really criminal. Defunding the World Health Organization—what does that mean? The World Health Organization works all over the world, mostly in poorer countries, on mothers’ health, diarrhea deaths and so on. So what are they saying is: “OK, let’s kill lots of people in the South because maybe that’ll improve my election prospects.”
JS: The governments of world’s rich countries must not ignore the difficult situation of the poorest nations that are fighting against the coronavirus. As the coronavirus deepens inequality, inequality worsens its spread. What should be the responsibility of the rich countries with the poor countries in this crisis?
NC: There must be genuine internationalism, support for those who need help. What we really see is something quite remarkable. Take the example of Italy again. Northern Italy has been in serious trouble. A few kilometers to the north is the richest country in the European Union (I repeat, UNION): Germany, which moved quickly with actions and measures to control its own problems. Did they send doctors and other medical aid to Italy? If so, it has been kept very well in secret. But Italy received substantial help from the superpower on the other side of the Atlantic: Cuba, which is once again proving itself to be the only example of genuine internationalism.
Immediately at the north of Cuba is the world’s largest superpower, which has been working for 60 years to crush Cuba through terror and economic war. The United States has responded to the serious problems of the poorest countries: making them worse. That is the precise meaning of Trump decision to improve his electoral prospects by cutting funds to the World Health Organization and turning it into the scapegoat for his crimes against Americans, defunding it, and moving forward, openly, to try to destroy it entirely. The direct result is to massacre an unknown number of people in Yemen, Africa and other poor areas where people suffer from many diseases, now coronaviruses, and depend on WHO medical treatment, now withdrawn. But as Trump’s Brazilian ally Jair Bolsonaro said in reaction to the deaths of poor people caused by his shameful response to the pandemic: “So what?” That gives us an image of “internationalism,” which can roll out in many ways.
JS: Apparently, some CEOs of various corporations resigned almost at the same time as the COVID-19 crisis began. There are rumors that members of the United States Congress had information that a pandemic was looming and that, apparently, many of them even went so far as to do “inside trade.” Is that true or is it just a rumor?
NC: There seems to be some truth to it. I haven’t investigated it closely but corruption is endemic in the business world and the government, which has become a deep swamp with the Trump administration.
JS: What will be the economic impact of this health crisis both in the United States and in the world? There is talk that we will have to learn to maintain the “social distance” between us for months, perhaps years.
NC: The economic impact will surely be severe, possibly even reaching the level of the Great Depression. As for other effects, it remains to be seen. Countries where governments have some concern for their citizens have managed to contain the crises, especially in Asia and Oceania, to a greater or lesser extent in Europe. Countries in the hands of sociopathic megalomaniacs, like the United States and Brazil, are in much deeper trouble. An important lesson is that this is another colossal failure of the neoliberal version of capitalism. An immeasurable failure. If we don’t learn this lesson, next time it will come back and it will be worse.
JS: In addition to the Trump administration and the Republicans, some media try to blame China for this crisis, and rather than blaming, they are condemning them. Does this play a geopolitical role or is it just part of the media elements to divert attention?
NC: The media is following the example of governments, particularly governments seeking to find a scapegoat for their crimes. Trump is the extreme example. In the United States, and much of the West, in fact, it is easy to reawaken the traditional hysteria about the Yellow Peril. The basic facts are not in doubt. On December 31, China informed the WHO that their doctors had found a surge of pneumonia-like symptoms of unknown etiology. In 10 days, Chinese scientists identified the source as a coronavirus, sequenced the genome, and provided the information to the world.
The governments that paid attention reacted immediately and have the situation quite under control, mainly Asia and Oceania. In the United States, intelligence agencies were knocking on the White House door trying to get Trump’s attention. No luck. Finally, in March, he began to pay attention, probably because the stock market was crashing, threatening his electoral prospects. I am not going to mention the tragicomedy that follows, causing tens of thousands of deaths.
It is much more convenient to blame the Yellow Peril, the WHO, the immigrants, anyone who comes to mind. The blame is widely shared, but there is nothing that can be remotely compared to the malignancy in Washington and the clone of Trump in the main Latin American country, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. For the United States, there are broader geopolitical issues. Relations between the United States and China are complex. The neoliberal corporate globalization project has placed overwhelming supply sources in China, although profits are concentrated at home. It’s a job considering that US-based multinationals have roughly half the world’s wealth, as political economist Sean Starrs has discovered. At the same time, China’s rapid growth is very worrying for U.S/ leaders, who are seeking to prevent it, in a very public way. All of this creates difficult and dangerous problems.
JS: What recommendation would you give, on the one hand, to the governments of the countries of Latin America, countries like the Dominican Republic that depend so much on tourism and that will suffer a lot economically? And to the peoples of those countries, to the citizens suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic?
NC: The immediate problem must be to contain the pandemic. Beyond that, it is a good time to rethink the development model of dependency on foreign wealth and power. Perhaps to revive UNCTAD’s programs for a New International Economic Order and related initiatives that succumbed to imperial force and the greed of Latin American elites, issues that arise throughout the Global South.
JS: As a scientist, what can Noam Chomsky say about COVID-19? Is a virus so small, a microscopic organism, bringing the world to its knees in just a couple of months? Any lesson to learn about how fragile our balance is?
NC: I’m old enough to remember when polio was a terror, which ended with a vaccine developed under a program started by President Roosevelt. Smallpox was eradicated. Other terrors have been controlled. The serious threat of microorganisms has been recognized for centuries.
The problem is not that the virus is so small, rather, it lies in our profit-driven socio-economic systems, which have created a very fragile global system designed in the interests of the very wealthy and corporate sectors, and under the neoliberal assault of the past 40 years, have caused serious damage, immense damage to the social and political order along with great damage to the majority of the world’s population.
The positive side is that the fundamental problems are under human control, if the public organized and acts. There is no way to predict what will come next in terms of our way of life. It depends on how the world population will react to what is happening. This situation could lead us to highly authoritarian and repressive states that expand the neoliberal plague even more than what has happened. In fact, they’re working on it right now. Always remember that the capitalist class does not yield, they are always pursuing more profits. Right in the middle of this, they are asking for more funds for fossil fuels. Destruction of regulations that offer some protection.
Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency, which under Trump has just become a complement to coal producers, removed regulations restricting the production of mercury and other soil pollutants around the plants. That means, “Let’s kill more American children and destroy the environment because this way we can get more benefits for the coal companies,” which, of course , are destroying the environment. That is what they constantly do. Every day, they don’t stop. And if there are no social forces that oppose them, it will be the world that will fall.
JS: A question outside the political, sociological or anthropological scope, if you wish, perhaps a philosophical or spiritual question to try to understand your reasoning process. When we see nature and observe all the ranges of interaction in our system of organisms and species, predators that survive by feeding on weaker beings, bacteria that interact with the environment, viruses that kill humans, insects, plants, living things, everything in a system articulated for billions of years, all that we call nature. We could say “Life is amazing and beautiful.” But when Noam Chomsky thinks about all this, how do you visualize it in your scientific and analytical mind and what does it mean to you?
NC: I try to visualize it exactly as it is. In the same way that if someone asked what it means to me that the bodies fall at a rate independent of the mass or that lions kill gazelles, etc., I’ll wait for an explanation of what the question is.
JS: Well, to be more specific and to explain even more where I want to go here, I would ask you then: What is the meaning of this whole system that we call nature? What is the meaning of life? Do we really live only to be born, grow, reproduce, and die?
NC: The meaning of life is what you do with your life. That question doesn’t arise for the two dogs sleeping quietly at my feet who will instantly wake up excitedly if I make a move and they’ll think maybe I’m going to take them out.
JS: So what are you telling me is that only us, as human beings, are capable to reflect about our own experience (existence = life) and that’s why we have a natural tendency to want to make sense of our lives. Then, “we go from to dust.”
NC: Do you think that is controversial?
JS: No. It is not controversial, but it makes us reflect about optimism. If there is no intrinsic meaning in life that motivates us to get up every day and fight for the well-being of humanity, if at the end of the day the reality is that we go “from dust to dust” and it is a matter of purely personal resolution, an individual decision, where do we get the values that invite us to be free, to fight against inequality and injustice?
NC: No one understands anything about the source of our values, but they’re there, firmly entrenched, just as 95% of the universe is there, even though astrophysicists can’t find it. By definition, our decision about what to do with our lives is an individual decision, but our individual decision may be (and typically is) to participate in many kinds of groups and contribute to advancing their aims.
JS: I remember you mentioning to me once that Ernst Mayr, in a debate with Carl Sagan, said that “human intelligence is a lethal mutation.” You come from a Jewish family, although I know that you are not affiliated with any religion, you come from a Jewish tradition. Leaders of different religions, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, prophesy that the world is going to end. On the other hand, climate change is an irreversible reality, the possibilities of nuclear destruction are very real and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, we see with our own eyes how fragile the human species is. At first glance it would seem like Religion and Science have led us to the same dramatic predictions. What do you think about this?
NC: That was my paraphrase of Mayr and think about what it might imply. The religions that I know incorporate some form of eternity. But predictions that are not based on evidence and sound reasoning have no scientific interest, apart from informing us about the human mind and how it grapples with issues beyond its rational comprehension.
JS: Do you think it is possible that there is a conspiracy behind the COVID-19 pandemic?
NC: There is not a small particle of evidence for that.
JS: What is the best memory of your visit to the Dominican Republic 14 years ago?
NC: So many years ago that I really couldn’t mention something specific right now. I would have to spend a little time remembering the details. In those years, the trips were so intense that there are important things (talks and discussions) that fall into a kind of confusion area. Except perhaps the exceptional human warmth of the Dominicans and the friendliness of the people. A few days that were very relaxing. The beauty of the beaches, the food and the sun. I really remember that very well, because it was so out of the ordinary. Without forgetting to mention the two friends who took us to visit the Province of Samaná, both were excellent companions and friendly. That’s why I referred to talks and discussions.
I will give you an example. I once flew to Michigan State University to give a talk about the Vietnam War. When people met me at the airport, some looked vaguely familiar, which was strange since I didn’t recall ever having been there before. Turned out I’d been there four times in the preceding two years. That can give you an idea of how intense those trips were.