FROM HERE IT CAN GO EITHER WAY. Professor Jeffrey Sachs is an American economist and public policy analyst. He is an expert on economic development and the fight against poverty. Sachs has been director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University from 2002 to 2016 and currently works closely with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on issues of sustainable development.
Professor Sachs, because of the corona virus the world has stopped moving. There are no planes, no trains, no cars, no factories, and suddenly nature is blooming and skies are clear. What does all this mean to you, as you have campaigned so much for a sustainable world?
This is not the way to sustainable development, of course. We are in the midst of the deepest crisis in our lifetime. The key right now is to fight the epidemic. Of course we should rebuild the world economy taking into account future threats, including not only pandemics but climate and ecology more generally. We should rebuild guided by the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement (e.g. the European Green Deal), and of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As you have said in recent interviews and in your new book ‘The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions’ countries and their governments have been taken by surprise and seem to be totally unprepared. How is it possible for such a modern technological scientifically advanced world?
The rich world was not prepared because politics became a fight over personalities rather than a search for solutions on deeper issues. In the U.S. we are governed by a President who was incapable of taking sound actions even after the alarm bells went off.
“The US is failing its own citizens and is actively undermining multilateralism.”
Sustainable Development Goals Advocate Jeffrey Sachs, Pope Francis, finance ministers from various countries, and the President of the UN General Assembly all came together at the Vatican in 2019 for a discussion on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Jeffrey Sachs, as you have pinpointed and underlined, the Corona virus has created a kind of philosophical debate about the goal of healthcare vis a vis the economy. Is it better dying of Corona virus or having riots, people starving, huge unemployment and dramatic uncertainty?
Many places in Asia – China, Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand – have substantially defeated the epidemic. Why haven’t Europe and the US? In part, because our politicians, experts and public are not ready to learn from the successes in Asia, which have been based on a massive public health effort to contain the spread of Covid-19. China has controlled the epidemic inside that country, but Americans continue to die in large numbers.
China has a totalitarian regime with very little freedom. Are we sure that they provide the proper information about what’s happening?
There are many charges against China: that the numbers are wrong, that they provide too little information about what is happening, that the virus was made in a laboratory, or that the virus was accidently released from a laboratory. I would say this. The evidence is strong that China has truly controlled the virus, as have many of China’s neighbors. Did Chinese authorities count every death? No country has been able to do so. Did China deliberately hide tens of thousands of deaths, much less an ongoing epidemic? The answer is probably no. Can we be sure? Nothing is certain, but it is likely that we are seeing a generally accurate picture. And the truth will come out. I believe it will show that China was able, through strong and decisive measures, to control the epidemic. We see the same in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand, and Australia, among other countries in East Asia and Oceania.
Around the world in several countries they suspect that this pandemia did not originate naturally but was made in a laboratory. What do you believe?
Did China deliberately make the virus in the laboratory? No serious scientist believes this to be the case. Did a laboratory accidentally release the virus? It is possible, but I think not highly likely. Far more likely is a zoonotic event outside of a laboratory, as with many other newly emerging diseases in recent decades. The origins of Covid-19 should and will be investigated carefully by teams of Chinese and international scientists. I am confident that such investigations will happen, probably in many instances, but in any event such a scientific process should happen.
“Life will change deeply…. Much will depend on politics and politicians.”
Professor Sachs, all over the world all kinds of people state that the world will never be the same again. Others say that after a couple of years once they find the vaccine that the machine of the world will start to work again. Will life come back as before? What are you thinking?
Life will change deeply. We could draw positive lessons on preparedness, resilience, science-based policies, and social equity. We could indeed move to much more sustainable technologies, such as renewable energy and digital technologies, and do so in an equitable manner. Or the epidemic could lead to a deeper economic and geopolitical crisis, as occurred in the 1930s. Much will depend on politics and politicians.
When the leaders of the western world were Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and de Gaulle, do you think that they would have faced this obscure war with corona virus with more strength and better results?
Roosevelt, yes. Stalin, no.
You praise the efficiency of China and other Far Eastern countries in front of the pandemia, and you also underline the negligence and the amateurish approach of the US government and other western governments. Is this a dangerous triumph of the dictatorial regime and the failure of democracy?
The issue is not dictatorship versus democracy. A democracy such as New Zealand has succeeded through strong science-based leadership (and Jacinda Ardern, a wonderful woman PM, in power!).
Yes, of course. It is essential to replace the incumbent.
What kind of advice would you give to Joe Biden?
To prepare for the presidency with substantial teams, scientists, national experts, and not just to arrive in office without a detailed agenda.
What is the role of a professor of economics in front of the situation we are going through?
To draw on science, history, knowledge, and experience to help confront the crisis. And to speak honestly and directly when our politicians are hugely destructive to global wellbeing.
Yes, much more education will be online. It works.
You have fought all your life against poverty. What are your recipes today when it looks like there will be years of new, dramatic poverty?
To stop the epidemic through effective public health, cancel poor-country debts, end global tax havens, tax wealth, transfer incomes to the poorest countries, and mobilize the new digital technologies and renewable energy for economic breakthroughs in all countries, including the poorest.
Professor Jeffrey Sachs
The End of Poverty, Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs with a foreword by Bono.
The Ages of Globalization by Jeffrey Sachs, published in 2020.
Jeffrey Sachs with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2019.
The future is in our hands.
“I am very worried about more conflict.”
They have been working hard for global wellbeing in the face of hostility by the nationalistic US government.
Do you think that the world will become more aware and cooperative, or on the contrary there will be more and more boundaries between countries?
It can go either way. After WWI, there was much less cooperation. After WWII, more cooperation, but then a Cold War. There is nothing automatic in this.
At the end of the day are you predicting a strong conflict, or on the contrary an appeasing of the US China relationship?
I am very worried about more conflict. There are a lot of hotheads in the US. I hope that Europe will side with cooperation with China rather than backing a US attempt at a new cold war.
What advice would you give to your country and all the western allies of how to face the present and future dangers?
We need politics for the common good rather than for the corporate lobbies. We need global cooperation, not hate. We need diplomacy, not war. We need science, not ignorance. It’s a tall order. The US is failing its own citizens and is actively undermining multilateralism. The populists – Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Johnson, others – are a distraction from the deep issues of politics that we should urgently face: fairness, social justice, efficient government, global cooperation, environmental sustainability.
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