Well Said Podcast | April 7

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Heather Reisman:
Hi, I’m Heather Reisman, and this is Well Said, a podcast on the art and science of living well. This podcast is brought to you by Indigo.

A year into living through this pandemic, many of us are wondering what the future holds. How will this seismic event change the world as we knew it before this global super-jolt? For perspective on the larger trends and fault lines, we could do no better than to turn to our guest today, Fareed Zakaria. Fareed is a bestselling author, journalist, political commentator, and host of the weekly CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS. He has gained international acclaim for his work and was recently named a Top 10 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine. His most recent book, Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World, is packed with insight. And I can’t wait to start this conversation.

Fareed, welcome.

Fareed Zakaria:
Such a pleasure, Heather. Thanks for having me on.

Heather Reisman:
Let’s start with this. And I know you get this question a lot, but I feel compelled to ask it, as it so sets the stage for our discussion. You penned this book about the lessons from the pandemic when we were still very much in the early throes of it. Why were the implications so clear to you so early?

Fareed Zakaria:
It’s a great question. A few weeks into the pandemic, I started to jot down things that I noticed were happening. And what I noticed was happening was this acceleration of life, that I describe in the book, with this crisis every human being on the planet has been affected by. And it has this sort of run-on effect. And so I was, for some reason, able to see that there was first going to be the public health crisis, then there was going to be the economic crisis of the lockdowns, then there was going to be a debt crisis which we are beginning to move into. I just felt very clear in my head. As I was jotting those things down, I wrote down the ten big things I thought were going to happen. And I then spent five months working from six every morning ’til about 11—and then I’d start my day job—writing the book. And the one thing that never changed was those 10 lessons. I mean, I expanded them, I researched them, I talked to people, but I was able to envision what the world was going to look like, pretty early on.

Heather Reisman:
You make this point that the coronavirus pandemic is different from other crises we have faced in recent years. Say a little more about that. How is it different?

Fareed Zakaria:
It wasn’t like 9/11. It wasn’t like the financial crisis. Everything was being speeded up. Digital life. You know, just there’s so many places where that was happening. And I realized that this was a very unusual crisis in that it was both truly global—you know, if you think about it, if you were an average citizen living in Japan, or Peru, or Brazil, or South Africa, 9/11 had very little meaning for you. It was something between the West and the Middle East and to largely America and a few countries in the Middle East. When the global financial crisis hit, again most of these people unless they were tied up with the Western financial system with those derivatives and things, it didn’t affect them. But this crisis every human being on the planet has been affected by.

Heather Reisman:
You note that this pandemic can be thought of as nature’s revenge. In fact, you make a direct connection between the pandemic and our decades-long disregard for our environment. Can you unpack this connection a bit for us today?

Fareed Zakaria:
There’s no question that the way we live now is, in a sense, a kind of invitation to various reactions that nature is going to have. We live at a pace and a scale that is really unprecedented in human history—because we are just one species among many. And if you look at the way, for example, we are building out cities and destroying the natural habitats of various animals, that is the closest connection you can find to this pandemic. Because what has happened is animals, like bats, which have many viruses for a variety of reasons, used to have a natural habitat that was far removed from human beings. The closer and closer we have impinged on bats’ natural environment, the more likely it is that the diseases that bats have jump species, not directly usually to humans but to pigs, or to chickens, or to pangolins, and then from there to humans.

And so, in this particular case, there’s a very, very direct causal relationship. One of the scientists I interviewed for the book, Peter Daszak, says it’s very important to understand it’s not about nature, it’s about what we are doing to nature. And if you think about that when you broaden it out. You know, look at what has happened over the last year or two. In the last year in the United States, five million acres of land burned to the ground. That is the equivalent of the state of Massachusetts burning to the ground. Now, why does that happen? It’s because of all this carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere which is warming the Earth, creating conditions for dryness and drought. Or look at the way in which we are subsidizing people to live at the edges of coasts at a time when we know the sea levels are going to rise as the Arctic continues to melt.

So you put all this together. And you realize that we are living dangerously. And here’s the killer: we’re going to add two billion more people to this planet. And you look at that and say to yourself we’ve been pretty lucky so far, but another two billion people, I think at some point the danger is our luck runs out.

As you know, in the book, I quote this brilliant scientist, Joshua Lederberg, who says his greatest worry is that we have a complacency about this where we think we’re special—nature is looking out for us, nature is going to take care of us. And his point is nature is just chemistry, physics, and biology; and you push it too hard, and a series of chemical reactions could take place and then, poof, there is no more life on Earth.

Heather Reisman:
So you’re saying learn from this, because how we humans interact with nature, going forward, will define whether we have a future. And bad as this moment is, it is just a warning. Another lesson you want us to absorb is this notion that the quality of government—the intelligence, and thoughtfulness, and decision-making ability of government—is actually the coin of the realm, not the quantity or size of government. Why did this pandemic so clearly surface this lesson for you? And tell us a bit about why some governments were better able to handle the crisis than others, and by extension why some societies have moved through it better than others.

Fareed Zakaria:
You put it exactly right. It’s why are some governments able to and why are some societies able to; and those are two different questions. The government part I think we can see a little bit more clearly, which is all of these governments in East Asia—because it’s Taiwan, it’s South Korea, it’s Singapore, it’s Hong Kong, it’s even Vietnam which is a poor country—they’ve all done remarkably well. And all of them, by the way, have done it without lockdowns, without national lockdowns. And the reason is: they acted early; they acted aggressively; and they acted intelligently.

The early part, I think, has something to do with the experience they have had of many previous viruses: SARS, MERS, H1N1, swine flu. But the other parts were that they have taken government seriously. They have really devoted themselves to the idea that the government has to act in ways that are intelligent, that are purposeful, they have to be clean. All these governments that I’m talking about have reputations for being non-corrupt, which engenders trust between the government and its people.

But to me, the most interesting piece was what the head of the Taiwan program, the vice president—who was actually a Johns Hopkins trained epidemiologist—told me. He said the key was not even just having a good system of testing and tracing in place, it was could you do isolation of the infected and potentially infected. So he said, so our question was could we make the bargain with our society that we will ask these one per cent—these 200,000 people—to isolate themselves for 14 days so that they don’t pose a risk to anyone in terms of spread? And that allowed the other 99 percent to live their lives completely undisturbed—no lockdowns, nothing.

And I think to myself that’s such a powerful way to think about it. Because in the West, by and large, we really were not able to make that deal with our people. The governments thought, “Well, we don’t have the authority to do it” or “We can’t force people do it.” People said, “Who the hell is the government to do it.” And I think to myself, you know, by the way economically, it would’ve been easy to take everybody in Canada and the United States who was in that category—the infected or potentially infected—put them up at the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons. The savings in costs from not having to do a lockdown are in the trillions; the cost of putting these people up and giving them, you know, five-star room service every day for 14 days would’ve been trivial. But we couldn’t somehow come to grips with that, because we are not serious about the idea of government.

And we are not—and this gets to your second and important point—we’re not serious about the idea of we’re all in this together. This is a collective enterprise. You know, if you look at how mask-wearing has become so politicized, certainly in the United States. Mask-wearing is a perfect example of this social contract. Because the mask, what you’re saying with the mask-wearing is, “I will protect you; you will protect me; and together we will be safe.” And so it’s a collective endeavour. I’m struck by the fact that even in Canada, which started out very well, it stumbled after a while.

Heather Reisman:
I want to turn to your lesson framed as “People should listen to experts—and experts should listen to people.” And let me tee this up and ask you, is it reasonable in the midst of a crisis to expect medical experts, and by extension the political leaders they are advising, to actually listen to the general public? I mean, the motivation of medical experts, rightly so, is to keep people alive, keep people out of hospitals, and make sure the pressure on the healthcare system isn’t so great that it collapses. That’s all they’re thinking about. And they are the experts. So then why should we, the public, be listened to, as you say?

Fareed Zakaria:
It’s a great question. And one of the reasons I think it is, is because there are two things going on. One: these medical experts have to understand they exist in a democracy, and not just a democracy as a form of government but a democratic society where people expect not to be ordered around. This is not China. And that means, the way I put it is they have to let us in on the secrets a bit more. They have to tell us, “Here’s what we’re thinking. We’re looking at the number of masks we have. And right now we feel as though we need them for medical people, and the next …” rather than saying initially, “Masks don’t work,” because they were scared that there would be a run on masks. Then they say, “No, masks do work.”

You’re seeing some of the same thing going on right now, which is, in the United States, the vaccine is really working miraculously. Case loads in the United States have gone, in six weeks, from 300,000 to under 50,000. So essentially, the vaccines are working when the R-naught starts to go below one, the rate of spread. You’re seeing kind of the exponential movement in reverse, which is it’s plummeting. But nobody wants to say this. You know, Dr. Fauci doesn’t want to say it. The doctors don’t. Because they’re afraid that you will then encourage people to bad behaviour. I understand that, but, you know, you’re not leveling with people. We have to find some balance where you’re not always saying, “I know what’s good for you, and I’m going to give you the version of truth that will make you act the right way,” because that’s a dangerous thing to do in a democracy.

But the second piece, as you know, is that I think it’s part of a much larger class divide that is growing and becoming very toxic—and this is happening in Canada as in the United States—which is this divide between an urban, professional, educated elite and a more rural, less educated. And I think this is only going to grow. And we have to be very careful, because the experts are part of that and you don’t want to create a situation where people feel like, “My way of defining myself politically is to defy experts.” That would get us into a very bad place.

Heather Reisman:
It seems your point here is that transparent, empathic, public messaging that actually respects the intelligence of the public is going to be critical—whether it’s a medical expert speaking or a political leader. I have to say I am really down with that.

Fareed Zakaria:
I thought Angela Merkel did very well over the Christmas period. You know, when she said to people, “Look. I really understand. You all want to meet with your loved ones. But can we all do this thing this one time? Because what we’re trying to do is to make sure that, for everybody in Germany, this is not the last time you see your grandparents because of something foolish you did.”

I’ve often thought similarly when dealing with the way jobs are going to go away because of climate change. The thing to do is not to cavalierly say, “Oh, there’ll be lots of green jobs. The coal miners shouldn’t worry. The oil and natural gas people shouldn’t worry,” but to understand that this is their life—this is their definition of themselves, this is the dignity they draw from work—and just say, “We really respect what you’ve done. We appreciate it. You’ve kept the lights on in our country for decades and decades. And we are going to try to work to make sure that you will continue to keep the lights on, only doing it in different ways”—something like that.

I used to say to my team on the television show in the early months in the lockdown, “I just want you to always remember that when we tell people that there should be a lockdown, we are doing it from the comfort of knowing we have jobs and we continue to generate income for ourselves and our families. And a lot of the people listening are going to be hearing those same words and say, ‘That means I cannot open my restaurant,’ ‘That means I cannot work in my hotel,’ ‘That means I cannot work in retail.’ Those people are facing something that looks like The Great Depression. So don’t ever be cavalier about how we say that.”

Heather Reisman:
That really is such a simple but big idea. And it takes me to the next question. You write in the book that pandemics have the potential to act as great equalizers but, in fact, on the economic level, this pandemic will achieve the very opposite: the rich are getting richer, the big are getting bigger; and you see it everywhere. So what were the underlying dynamics that are now being sped up by the pandemic? And more importantly, how do you think about this, and how should we think about this? What should we be doing to begin to mitigate this galloping inequality?

Fareed Zakaria:
The Home Depots have done well. The Walmarts have done well. The little mom-and-pop hardware store has disappeared. Even in restaurants, you see the big restaurants, the chains—the ones that have the capacity to withstand, to buy filtration systems—they’ve done fine. The little self-owned, chef-owned restaurant has collapsed. So we are seeing a huge widening of this divide. And I think in this particular case it’s very important to understand this was also an acceleration of an ongoing trend. So Amazon had already taken over marketshare from a lot of those small businesses. Home Depot had already put a lot of the small hardware stores out of business. Basically, we are in an economy that has found a way to generate enormous amount of economic output with very few people.

So the conclusion I draw from all of this is you cannot expect the market to solve this problem. You know, for a long time, ever since Reagan and Thatcher, a lot of times when we would see a problem we would say, “Let’s throw the market’s energy at this problem.” But because of the combination of the information revolution and globalization and things like that, the market is now saying, “Look. The most efficient thing would be if everybody buys everything on Amazon. The most efficient thing would be if you have one big player and they can amortize all the costs, and the consumer gets free goods as a result.” And that may be economically true: in a digital world having one search engine, and one social media company, and one online marketplace may be the most efficient way to go. But it’s a way that we can construct our societies in any kind of a livable, humane way, because you really would be leaving large swaths of the population in a position where they simply have no work and no income.

So markets can’t solve this problem; only politics can solve it. We have to decide, as a community, as countries, that we want something different, we want a more equitable distribution of wealth. And we have to be comfortable with the fact that will mean there will be some distortions to the market. In other words, I think we have to own up to the fact that we are not going for the pure market solution here, because the pure market solution is politically almost morally unacceptable to us.

Heather Reisman:
So in essence, you’re actually saying that we have been moving from being a market economy to a market society, and that the pandemic has sped this up. And in essence, what the book confirms is that fundamental trends that were already in place, that were already gaining momentum—so you were so aware of them, you were dealing with them—and you’re saying it was obvious they were just going to be accelerated by this global, all-encompassing event.

Fareed Zakaria:
Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it, that I had already been steeped in this world and had been watching these trends, and then I suddenly start seeing them going on fast-forward. And so, in part, that was probably why it was much easier to do. The one piece I had to get right, I remember, was I studied the science of it very intensely initially, because I wanted to be sure that there would be vaccines, and they would be widely available, and they would be distributed, because that’s the only circumstance in which I could imagine speaking about a post-pandemic world relatively quickly. One fear that I had was that I was going get wrong the idea that the vaccines would be available in roughly a year or a year-and-a-half. They actually happened a little faster than I expected.

Heather Reisman:
Faster than everyone expected.

Fareed Zakaria:
It’s an absolute miracle, you know, if one wants to think about the good side to this. Normally, even 10 years ago, if you had asked people, “How long will it take to devise a vaccine for a new virus?” mostly people would have told you, “10 years.” That’s about the historical norm. And this has happened in nine months. And now we have five vaccines. In all five of the trials for this vaccine, there is not a single person who has been hospitalized. So the vaccines are way more effective than any vaccines we have had before. Again this acceleration has taught us so much. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new era in biological science.

Heather Reisman:
Toward the end of the book, in Lesson Ten, which is titled “Some of the greatest realists are idealists,” you discuss the importance of idealism—a favourite subject of mine. You highlight how some of our most idealistic and bold leaders have been those who have been hardened by great disaster and even by war. People who are, as you said, patinated by the realism of life. How important do you think idealism is in the leaders we choose at this moment in time? And where does your idealism come from?

Fareed Zakaria:
Part of where I draw my idealism does come from that historical record you pointed out. Because I was so struck in listening to the rhetoric of politicians—particularly immediately after the pandemic hit—when, you know, I mean, obviously Trump was awful and sort of blamed everything on the Chinese, but even good statesmen—like people like Macron and many people in Asia—said, “Why do we have all this trade? We’re all dependent on the Chinese?” or “This came in because we’ve allowed too much globalization, too many people move around, and we need to focus on ourselves”—you know, this kind of focus on selfishness.

And I was struck by just thinking through what people like Eisenhower, and Roosevelt, and Churchill had gone through: two World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, hyper-inflation, the Holocaust. And they come out of that, and their attitude was: we need to be really idealistic, we have to aim for the skies, we have to try to create a League of Nations that works, we have to create world peace. I mean, Eisenhower went on and on about how he wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and things like that. And I think it’s because, you know, when people have seen the worst, they know how important it is to imagine the best. They know how important it is to get out of that cycle of selfishness, and nationalism, and protectionism.

The truth of the matter is human beings have been through crazy stuff, if you think about. I mean, we’ve been through wars, and depressions, and revolutions. And climactically we’ve gone through massive changes. And we’re still here. We’ve had the bubonic plague, we’ve had the Spanish influenza. And we’re still here. So there is enormous resilience. There is the capacity to survive, to even thrive.

Heather Reisman:
Right. That’s inspiring. We need to keep in mind we have faced challenges before and come through the other side, and we will do it again.

Fareed Zakaria:
But we’ve never really faced a challenge of this scale where we’re going to have seven or eight billion people on the planet who are all trying to consume massive amounts of energy, eat enormous amounts of meat, live where they want to, have cars. That’s what creates the dilemma, which is we are testing the limits of the planet’s capacity to house us or the ability to exist in a kind of disease-free environment. And we can do it as long as we’re conscious and thoughtful and deliberative about it. And I talk about buying insurance, about being resilient, about putting in place protections.

Heather Reisman:
So are you feeling positive that leaders with, what we can call, idealism rooted in realism, that those kind of leaders will emerge? Certainly we’re not experiencing those kind of leaders right now, almost anywhere we look in the world.

Fareed Zakaria:
I’m very optimistic that there are solutions to all these problems, but not if we don’t acknowledge that there are problems, not if we don’t understand that we are facing these dangers and we are facing these challenges. If we do, we can get through them and, in fact, we could end up in a better place than we are now. But we can’t ignore the problem. Part of the challenge here is lifting our eyes—lifting that horizon and saying it’s not just about the next 20 years, it’s about the next 200 years.

Heather Reisman:
Yes, we have to hope that these kind of leaders emerge. And maybe the issue is that we, as citizens, need to look for and demand these kind of leaders.

[music]

Heather Reisman:
A few fun questions we always like to ask at the end of our podcast. So let’s start with this. What brings you joy in life?

Fareed Zakaria:
Oh, gosh. I’m an optimist. And I have a great joie de vivre. Everything gives me joy in life. I love great food, a great book, a piece of beautiful music. My kids probably are the most important. I have to be totally honest, they bring me the greatest joy in life and also the greatest sadness. When somebody said to me, “How are you doing?” the other day, I said, “I’m never happier than my least unhappy child.” So that’s it.

Heather Reisman:
And what are you reading right now?

Fareed Zakaria:
I am reading right now, and you will like this, it’s a book by a British, trained mathematician called The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean. I’ve just been reading it. And it’s basically, the guy studied mathematics, started at the University of Chicago and taught at Oxford. His name is David Bodanis. He’s tried to show you that there’s very good empirical work that shows that being kind and thoughtful and generous is actually the winning strategy in much of life.

Heather Reisman:
Certainly I believe that. Fareed, I am always inspired by your thinking. This book in particular I feel is so approachable. Thank you for writing it. And thank you for being here.

Fareed Zakaria:
Thank you so much for having me on, Heather. This was such a pleasure and so stimulating.

[music]

Heather Reisman:
Thank you for tuning in to our conversation with Fareed Zakaria. For more ideas to help you live well, including the book featured in this episode, Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World, visit indigo.ca/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts. You can follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Well Said was produced for Indigo Inc. by Vocal Fry Studios and is hosted by me, Heather Reisman.