E-conclave Corona Series: Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman on humanity’s fight against Covid-19

A recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes, Thomas Friedman is one of the world’s most renowned columnists. He is also the author of seven New York Times bestsellers, including his latest work Thank You For Being Late. Friedman grew up in Minneapolis and is an authority on Middle Eastern affairs.

If you were updating The World is Flat, what would the new title be?

The world is flatter than ever. Look at what is happening right now, I am sitting in my home in Bethesda and having a conversation with you now.

In the after-corona world, the world will be much flatter. Economists don’t own the definition of trade. There is no question that after corona, every country that can afford to do so will shorten its supply chains concerning medical equipment. There will also be a change in the short-term, there will be slower immigration between countries.

How will President’s Trump handling of the crisis affect the US?

In a book I had written earlier, I had stated that we Americans consider ourselves exceptional but exceptionalism is something each country has to earn. This crisis exposed our weaknesses in public health, social trust and our cognitive immunity.

Does the pandemic make it easier or difficult to get Trump re-elected?

It all depends on how he performs between now and November and how the virus performs. There is a scenario if we have a virus and the stimulus supports a revival of the economy.

Another scenario is we re-open the country during the summer and the virus returns.

Can President Trump run against China?

If he has to run against China, he will lose.

The President is encouraging violation of lockdown in states run by Democratic governors?

I believe that Donald Trump is the worst-possible president America can have at the worst-possible crisis. He lies as he breathes. He is both the arsonist and the fire-fighter. He is utterly dishonest and unscrupulous.

How will Covid-19 affect China’s plans of global domination?

China cannot supplant America by distributing masks, many of which turned out defective. The labs and trade of animals, China owes the world an explanation. We need China as a collaborator. I agree with President Trump about this, all these zoonotic diseases will not stop unless China acts.

What do you see as the fallout?

If we use this crisis to enhance our abilities and in a smart way, America can come out stronger.

How do you think India is doing?

India’s ability to sustain the lockdown is a challenge. There is one doctor for 10,000+ people in rural areas. It seems to me that India has no choice but to go for herd immunity. Prime Minister Modi seems to have done a good job.

How do you compare the various leadership styles of leaders?

This is a very different crisis that is because the enemy here is not another country. America was able to win WWII by out mobilising the Germans, it won the Cold War by outstanding the Soviet Union. You can’t win against mother nature. Our goal is not to defeat mother nature but adapt to it.

Sweden went for herd immunity, other countries are using lockdowns. It’s too early to see who’s got it right.

Why has President Trump faltered?

President Trump has no feel or experience of the natural world, he measures everything in market terms and money. Unfortunately, when Trump was boasting about the market, mother nature was working overnight to spread the virus.

Will the post-corona era herald Globalisation-4?

It would look a lot like you and I are doing right now. Is this as good as coming to India and sharing a meal with my friends, no, it’s not but it’s 80 per cent good. I can be at a conference with the UN and another with China in the same day.

Which cultural response can come out on top in the fight against Covid-19?

Tight cultures are very authority-bound. Loose cultures are very individualistic, more bottom-up and side-to-side. Initially, the tight cultures seem to have responded better than loose cultures, they seem to have an advantage.

I can speak for America, we need to invest in national healthcare, our environment and our sustainability if we want to maintain our loose-culture because the cost of this loss could be generational.

Could govt exerting new powers become part of our life?

Some of the issues we will have to deal after corona, will need to be dealt with a national unity government. I will want the person sitting next to me not to carry coronavirus. There will a wrenching debate about equity in America about this.

What should we save, what should go under?

In the short-term, with low global interest rates, governments can borrow. We should be doing that. We can come out of this crisis becoming more productive.

What would the new world economic order be?

It’s hard to tell. All I know is that when we look back, we will know that those who did well are people who believed in science and not those who went for political gains.

Is there anything governments are doing that could reveal who’s naked or not?

Historically, America came out of the crisis. We helped the world re-organise, helped the world with aid. Unfortunately, we have been none of those things.

What is the next crisis?

This is a run-up to climate change. The difference is Climate change does not peak. If we let the glaciers melt, crazy disruptive weather will follow. Herd immunity cannot help with climate change.

What is the next worst-case scenario?

We fell out of balance with nature. We have invaded ecosystems and destroyed them all over the world. What we have done is we have killed the apex predators and the dominant species. Once we did that, all you are left with are primitive species. These bats, rats have co-evolved.

Social media is being used to use big data for surveillance. What is your take on this?

Without a vaccine, all we have is testing, tracking and tracing. Some cultures will resist that.

When do you think life will return to normal?

We are in a race between Moors-law and covid-law. Can all this knowledge come up with a vaccine faster than coronavirus will overwhelm the healthcare system? I am more hopeful than not.

How do you think people will wrap their heads around with social interactions?

Older people will take precautions. Younger people should go back to work and develop herd immunity with mild symptoms. That’s the model we are moving towards.

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