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Yuval Noah Harari. 
Photo: Yuval Noah Harari. 

Are scientists the new priests? Faith in science in the times of COVID-19

The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, reflects on how our way of thinking about illness and death will change after the coronavirus pandemic.

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Woody Allen was once asked if he hoped to live forever in the memory of fans, to which the comedian, who has an atrocious fear of death, replied: "I'd rather keep living in my apartment."

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed the way we relate and our hygiene habits, but also made us aware of our own fragility and the holes in our health policies. But even so, many things have changed in our way of facing the catastrophe. If before, resignation and fear of God were the ways we submitted ourselves to the ravages of a pandemic, now it is indignation and hope that are the keys to this era we live in.

This was stated in an article published in The Guardian by the eminent philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the best-selling book Homo Deus, who warned that the only ones who put the emphasis on death and not on prolonging life are nationalists and these individuals "do not really know what to do with it."

In short, what Harari analyzes in a profound way is the old saying of "Dead God; New God"; or how religions have given way amid the scientific revolution to a new way of seeing our mortality as "a technical failure" that has a solution and not a divine design. 

"While traditionally death was the specialty of priests and theologians in black cassocks, now it is people in white lab coats," said Harari. In other words, it is not a question of giving meaning to death, but of extending life by researching the microbiological, physiological and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age, and by developing revolutionary new medicines and treatments.

COVID-19, a glitch in the system

Every day we receive thousands of news items not only about the incessant trickle of death and infection, but also about the scientific advances that various laboratories and governments are making to find a COVID-19 vaccine, something that we know is going to happen - we have faith in it - but not when. 

"Our heroes are not the priests who bury the dead and excuse the calamity - our heroes are the doctors who save lives. And our superheroes are the scientists in the laboratories," he said. "Just as film fans know that Spider-Man and Wonder-Woman will eventually defeat the bad guys and save the world, we are sure that in a few months, maybe a year, people in the labs will find effective treatments for COVID-19 and even a vaccine. Then we will show this nasty coronavirus who is the alpha organism of this planet! The question on everyone's lips, from the White House, through Wall Street, to the balconies of Italy is: 'When will the vaccine be ready?' When. Not if."

"Our heroes are not the priests who bury the dead and excuse the calamity - our heroes are the doctors who save lives."

It's quite reasonable if you look at the progress of the scientific revolution, which has increased life expectancy in the last two centuries from less than 40 years to 72 years worldwide and more than 80 years in developed countries. 

"If until the 20th century at least a third of children did not reach adulthood because of diseases such as dysentery or smallpox, this is no longer the case. In the world as a whole, child mortality has been reduced to less than 5%," he pointed out.

For the author of Homo Deus, all of these successes coupled with the scientific mindset have stopped us from focusing on the afterlife as a source of meaning and to think about how to hold on to life itself. 

However, we should not be blinded by the promises of transhumanism. He warns that we are still a long way from the immortality sought by four Silicon Valley billionaires and that we should assume our own finiteness, sooner or later, as part of life. 

"Even many traditional religions have changed their approach. Instead of promising a little heaven in the afterlife, they have started to put much more emphasis on what they can do for you in this life," said Harari.

A change of attitude?

Nationalism, which has a lot of doctrine, seems to be the only one that gives meaning to death and the passage to posterity, which, although romantic, can be quite dangerous. 

"In its most poetic and desperate moments, nationalism promises that whoever dies for the nation will live forever in its collective memory," he wrote, and asked himself: "how does one really "live" in memory? If you are dead, how do you know whether people remember you or not?"

Harari is convinced the pandemic, which has brought us closer to the possibility of death while redoubling our faith in science and not in God, will not change our attitudes too much in the future, but rather the opposite. We will live longer, but we will do so by multiplying our efforts to "protect lives." Instead of thinking about divine punishment, we will look for someone to blame. Not us, Them. Scapegoat policies of protectionism that create enemies.

"Different countries accuse each other. Rival politicians throw responsibilities at each other like a hand grenade without a ring."

"While some religious preachers were quick to describe AIDS as God's punishment for homosexuals, modern society mercifully relegated such views to its lunatics, and today we generally view the spread of AIDS, Ebola and other recent epidemics as organizational failures. We assume that humanity has the knowledge and tools necessary to curb such plagues, and if an infectious disease gets out of control, it is due to human incompetence rather than divine wrath. COVID-19 is no exception to this rule. The crisis is far from over, but the blame game has already begun. Different countries are blaming each other. Rival politicians throw responsibilities at each other like a hand grenade without a clip."

The thinker anticipates the day when the COVID-19 vaccine is ready and the pandemic is over. What will be the main advantage for humanity of having gone through this experience?

"Most likely we will have to invest even more effort in protecting human lives. We need to have more hospitals, more doctors, more nurses..." said Harari

The struggle to prolong life will be the fate of the next 20 or 30 years. The question now is whether more is always better and for whom

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