The coronavirus crisis could have been prevented because there was enough information available to the world, according to Noam Chomsky, who has warned that once the pandemic is over, two critical challenges will remain – the threats of nuclear war and global warming.
Speaking from his office in self-isolation to Croatian philosopher and author Srecko Horvat, the celebrated 91-year-old US linguist offered a stark perspective on how the pandemic has been managed by different countries.
“This coronavirus pandemic could have been prevented, the information was there to prevent it. In fact, it was well-known. In October 2019, just before the outbreak, there was a large-scale simulation in the United States – possible pandemic of this kind,” he said, referring to an exercise – titled Event 201 – hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Nothing was done. The crisis was then made worse by the treachery of the political systems that didn’t pay attention to the information that they were aware of.
“On December 31, China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of pneumonia-like symptoms with unknown origins. A week later, some Chinese scientists identified a coronavirus. Furthermore, they sequenced it and provided information to the world. By then, virologists and others who were bothering to read WHO reports knew that there was a coronavirus and knew that had to deal with it. Did they do anything? Well yes, some did.
“China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore began to do something, and they have sort of pretty much seemed to have contained at least the first surge of the crisis.”
He explained that the way the West prepared for the crisis differed between countries.
“In Europe, to some extent, it’s happened. Germany … did have spare diagnostic capacity and was able to act in a highly selfish fashion, not helping others but for itself at least, to evident reasonable containment.
“Other countries just ignored it. The worst was the United Kingdom and the worst of all was the United States.
“One day [US President Donald Trump] says, ‘There is no crisis, it’s just like flu.’ The next day, ‘It’s a terrible crisis and I knew it all along.’ The next day, ‘We have to go back to the business, because I have to win the election’. The idea that the world is in these hands is shocking.”
The US has the world’s highest number of infections with more than 250,000 cases, while more than 6,500 have died with the virus.
Globally, there are more than a million cases across at least 180 countries, and more than 53,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, which has origins in China.
Describing the US president as a “sociopathic buffoon”, Chomsky said while the coronavirus was serious, “it’s worth recalling that there is a much greater horror approaching. We are racing to the edge of disaster, far worse than anything that’s happened in human history.
“Donald Trump and his minions are in the lead in racing to the abyss. In fact there are two immense threats that we’re facing – one is the growing threat of nuclear war … and the other of course is the growing threat of global warming.”
While the coronavirus can have “terrifying consequences, there will be recovery”, said Chomsky, but regarding the other threats, “there won’t be recovery, it’s finished”.
He also blasted Trump for continuing punishing sanctions on Iran, a country which is struggling to contain the virus with more than 3,000 deaths, as a way to make people suffer bitterly.
“When the US imposes devastating sanctions – it’s the only country that can do that, everyone has to follow … the master. Or else they are kicked out the financial system,” said Chomsky.
Why is there a coronavirus crisis? It's a colossal market failure. It goes right back to the essence of markets exacerbated by the savage neoliberal intensification of deep social-economic problems.
The conversation with Horvat took place online on March 28 as part of a series by Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, a political party launched by Greece’s former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, to discuss the world after the pandemic.
Other speakers have included Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and German-Croatian theatre director and author Angela Richter.
Looking ahead, Chomsky said there could be reason for hope as he made a case against neoliberalism.
“Possibly, a good side of the coronavirus, is it might bring people to think about what kind of a world do we want.
“We should think about the emergence of this crisis, why is there a coronavirus crisis? It’s a colossal market failure. It goes right back to the essence of markets exacerbated by the savage neoliberal intensification of deep social-economic problems.
“It was known for a long time that pandemics are very likely and it was underestimated. It was very well understood there were likely to be coronavirus pandemics, modifications of the SARS epidemic 15 years ago.
“At the time, it was overcome. The viruses were identified, sequences to the vaccines were available.
“Labs around the world could be working right then on developing protection for potential coronavirus pandemics. Why didn’t they do it? The market signals were wrong. The drug companies. We have handed over our fate to private tyrannies called corporations, which are unaccountable to the public, in this case, Big Pharma. And for them, making new body creams is more profitable than finding a vaccine that will protect people from total destruction.”
Remembering the polio epidemic in the US, Chomsky noted that it was ended by the discovery of the Salk vaccine by a government institution. The vaccine was available by the early 1950s.
“No patents, available to everyone. That could have been done this time, but the neoliberal plague has blocked that.”
Asked for his view on the current “war-time” language used during the crisis, which has seen medical workers described as being on the “front line” and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warning of the biggest challenge since World War II, Chomsky said the rhetoric was justified to mobilise people.
But post-pandemic options, he warned, “range from the installation of highly authoritarian brutal states all the way over to radical reconstruction of society and more humane terms concerned with human need and no private profit.
“We should bear in mind that highly authoritarian vicious states are quite compatible with neoliberalism.”