As the U.S. coronavirus death toll tops 150,000, we spend the hour with world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author Noam Chomsky, who says decades of neoliberal policies that shredded the social safety net and public institutions left the country ill-prepared for a major health crisis. “We should understand the roots of this pandemic,” he says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The U.S. coronavirus death toll has topped 150,000 on Wednesday, the highest of any nation by far. The hardest hit states per capita are Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee and Georgia, a list that includes all seven of the original Confederate states.
Today we talk about COVID and so much more as we spend the hour with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than 50 years, now laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Author of more than 100 books. Professor Chomsky spoke with Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I on Thursday, from his home in Tucson, Arizona about the coronavirus crisis.
NOAM CHOMSKY We should understand the roots of this pandemic. If we do not understand the roots and extirpate them, there is going to be another and worse one coming. So far we have been kind of lucky. The coronavirus, pandemics, epidemics are very serious, and there are many possibilities. So far, all the ones that have happened in the last ten or 15 years, either the virus has been very deadly but not very contagious, like Ebola, or very contagious but not very deadly, like COVID-19. What happens when the next one comes along that is both very contagious and very deadly? We are in deep trouble. Deep. Much worse than this. Much worse than the so-called “Spanish flu,” which ought to be called the Kansas flu by Trump’s logic. It originated in Kansas the century ago. We may be facing something much worse than that.
There are ways of dealing with it. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, scientists knew that another one is very likely. They warned against it. They presented policies that could be carried out. They weren’t implemented, in part because of deep institutional pathologies. The drug companies who are the obvious candidates for dealing with it can’t, by straight capitalist logic. You don’t spend money to try to prevent a catastrophe ten years from now. What you do is try to make money tomorrow. That is the logic of the system. So the pharmaceutical companies were ruled out by capitalist logic.
The government could step in. The government, in any event, does most of the basic research for vaccines and drugs, almost all of them. So they could have stepped in, create laboratories, and plenty of unlimited resources. But they are blocked by the neoliberal plague. Remember Ronald Reagan—that government is the problem, not the solution, which means we have to take decision-making and action out of the hands of government, which has a flaw; it’s somewhat responsive to the population. We have to shift it to unaccountable, private tyrannies, which are totally unaccountable to the population. That is the meaning of Reagan’s slogan. That is the fundamental principle of neoliberalism. We’ve been suffering—the world has been suffering from it for 40 years, except for the tiny percentage who have become super rich and extremely powerful. Well, that blocks the government.
Nevertheless, there were things that the government could do. When the Obama administration took office, in the first few days, Obama called the presidential scientific advisory board, which had been established by George H.W. Bush, the first Bush, who had some respect for science. Obama called it. He requested that they put together a pandemic reaction program, a way to deal with a pandemic if it comes. They came up with a report a couple weeks later. It was implemented. It was in place until January 2017.
Trump came into office, the first few days, dismantled the whole system. Nothing. That’s part of the general wrecking ball. “We have to destroy everything that Obama did. We have to wreck everything.” Because it is the only way to look like you are doing something. Happening all over. So that went.
There were programs of U.S. scientists working in China with Chinese colleagues to try to detect and identify coronaviruses. Most of them are deep in caves. It’s very dangerous work. Some have been killed, Chinese scientists. But they were finding them and identifying them and testing them. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the main center for investigating this. Trump canceled the program.
There were simulations run of a pandemic as late as October 2019 warning of what would happen. No attention. The Trump administration isn’t interested. So when the epidemic finally hit, the United States was singularly unprepared. After that comes a series of grotesque inactions and actions. For a couple of months, Trump refused to admit that it was happening.
Other countries were doing things. In Asia, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, they were reacting. Some of it, South Korea, which was one of the first places hit, never had to go to a lockdown because they dealt with it rationally. They identified the places that were hot spots, controlled them, tested, traced people for contacts. Countries pretty much functioned. Vietnam has reported zero deaths, and apparently that is taken quite seriously by leading U.S. specialists. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which monitors the international situation, records zero deaths from Vietnam, which has a 1,400-mile border with China. South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia are doing quite well. And Europe, they delayed in quite a way, but they did finally act. As you mentioned, the curve has sharply reduced since March for most of Europe. Some of them, like Norway, Germany, doing quite well in this respect. People are traveling through southern Italy almost like normal.
It has gotten so extreme that, as you know, Europe has banned American visitors. The United States is such a pariah state that Americans are not permitted to go to other countries. Other countries won’t allow them in. This is kind of mimicked in a horrible way in Brazil. Bolsonaro just denies that it’s happening. “It’s just a mild flu. Don’t worry about it. Brazilians are strong. We don’t care.” So big meetings of right-wing Bolsonaro supporters dancing in the streets and spreading the virus, and Bolsonaro says fine.
And one of the really world-shaking crimes that is being carried out is the destruction of the Amazon. That affects the whole world, not just Brazil. It’s basically genocide to the indigenous populations. Scientific predictions are that on our current course, the Amazon will shift in about 15 years from being a net sink of carbon dioxide to a net emitter of carbon dioxide, sometimes called the lungs of the Earth. The forest absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide. It will start emitting them instead. A little further down the road, the Amazon, under the current course, will just turn into savanna, no forest anymore. Devastating for Brazil and the other Amazonian countries. Devastating for the world. It’s one of the main oxygen producers of the world.
At every level, we are racing madly towards total catastrophe under the leadership of sociopathic fanatics. It is as if some evil demon decided to take over the human species and drive them to self-destruction. Much of the world is trying to counter it, almost all of the world, but the United States and Brazil are the extreme cases of racing with dedication towards disaster.
Going back to this election, that is the reason why it is the most dangerous, the most significant election in history. Why Trump is, in fact—this may sound outrageous, but it’s true—Trump is the most dangerous figure in human history. The Republican Party today is the most dangerous organization in human history. You can compare Trump to, say, Hitler, the Wannsee declaration in 1942, called for killing all the Jews, tens of millions of Slavs, not destroying humanized society. There has been nothing like this. Nothing.
The Republican Party, we know how they shifted. You go back just a decade or so, John McCain, 2008, was running for president. His program had some pretty weak, but some policies directed to global warming. The Republican Congress was beginning to contemplate global warming, policies to restrict global warming. The Koch brothers, a superrich energy corporation, got wind of this. They had been working for years to prevent it. David Koch, one of the Koch brothers who died recently, launched an incredible campaign to make sure that the Republican Party would turn to denialism. They bribed senators, intimidated others with the threat of running counter-campaigns against them. Huge lobbying campaign. Astroturf campaigns. A massive juggernaut. The party shifted, dropped all of its efforts to deal with climate change. It’s now a party led by denialists.
AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about this denialism and the science denialism, first dealing with the climate crisis and then extending to the pandemic, both threatening life on Earth, with President Trump now holding a daily coronavirus press briefing without the scientists, you have Anthony Fauci throwing out the first ball at the Washington Nationals game, the chief infectious disease scientist, who won’t play ball exactly with the White House, so he is not in the coronavirus briefing. You have Dr. Birx. President Trump says she’s right outside, but she is not a part of this news conference. Do you think reporters who are sitting in the White House briefing room should refuse to be there unless scientists are there and unless President Trump wears a mask?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yes, I think so, and I think they should do much more. They should be pointing out constantly what I just said: we’re dealing with the most dangerous figure in human history, backed by the most dangerous organization in human history, and give the facts. Not only the pandemic, but the much more serious threat of environmental disaster and the growing, very severe threat of nuclear war.
In my opinion, every newspaper should have on the front page an image of the Doomsday Clock. You know all about this, but every January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists gathers—the main scientific journal dealing with these issues—gathers scientists, political analysts to try to give an estimate of the security, the state of the world security. Started shortly after the atom bomb, it has been going on for 75 years. The minute hand is moved closer or farther—it oscillates—closer or farther to midnight, depending how dangerous the world situation is. Midnight means we are finished.
Every year that Trump has been in office, the minute hand has moved closer to midnight. Two years ago, it reached the closest it had ever been. This last January, the analysts gave up minutes; they moved to seconds. A hundred seconds to midnight. Since January, Trump has made every one of the issues that they have brought up worse. There were three major issues. One is of course the threat of nuclear war, second the threat of environmental catastrophe, the third the deterioration of democracy. Which does belong, because it is only with a vibrant democracy of informed, engaged public that we can have any hope of escaping from the two existential crises.
Since January, Trump has succeeded in making all three crises worse. I mention the nuclear weapons issue, considerably worse thanks to Trump’s actions. The environmental crisis of course getting worse, as he continues to press for maximization of the use of the most dangerous fossil fuels, cuts back through his EPA representatives and others, cuts back on the efforts to mitigate the crisis through regulatory means. And democracy, it’s pretty obvious; the executive branch has been essentially cleansed of independent voices. Nothing but sycophants of Pompeo variety. “We were sent by God to save Israel.”
The Inspectors General who were imposed by Congress, by the Republican Congress to monitor malfeasance of the executive branches, purged. Trump in fact went out of his way to humiliate the senior Republican senator, Charles Grassley, who had spent much of his career imposing these monitors. The attorney for the Southern District of New York looked into the Trump swamp; fired. Congress, turned by McConnell, used to be called the greatest deliberative body in the world. Now it is a joke. Doesn’t do any deliberation. It does essentially nothing except try to race through as many appointments of young, ultra-right judges as possible so they can pack the judiciary for a generation. The only other thing it does is figure out ways to pour money into the—dollars into the pockets of the rich, like the tax scam. That’s the Senate, the greatest deliberative body. Proposals come from the House for legislation; McConnell just cans them. Don’t look at them. That is not the role of the Senate.
Going back, that’s why they should be putting the Doomsday Clock on the front of every newspaper. Show us what the United States is doing to the world. To itself and the world. That should be in front of everyone’s attention. And there are many other things that should be done. There should be major protests now, everywhere, against the use of military force to occupy American cities and to crush peaceful dissidents. This is intolerable in a functioning democracy. We can’t sit by and let it happen, just let it proceed step by step until we reach real catastrophe.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. It’s the Quarantine Report. We return now to the interview I did with Nermeen Shaikh with Professor Noam Chomsky.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Chomsky, I’d like to ask about one of the immediate crises we are facing, which you’ve just spoken about earlier, which is of course this pandemic. If you could say a little—now, many scientists believe that a vaccine will be possible for this virus. Could you talk a little about what you hope will happen in terms of access to this vaccine?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, whether a vaccine will be available is an open question. There are some pretty favorable reports, but the development of safe vaccines is a pretty slow process. Rushing vaccines through has dangers associated with it that may be unknown, side effects, lots of problems that can be dealt with by slow development. But racing through does raise these problems. Nevertheless, given the spread of the virus, it’s imperative to do whatever can be done.
Then comes your question, how is it distributed? Well, in the kind of society in which we live, it will be distributed pretty much the way the stimulus money is being distributed, or the way the bailout in 2008 was distributed. That was the Obama administration, not the administration of a psychopath. So how was it done under Obama? Well, Congress passed the legislation with two parts, to bail out the perpetrators of the crisis, the big banks, the ones who had played games with derivatives and so on. “Let’s bail them out.” And the other part was to provide support for the victims, the people who lost their homes under foreclosure. “Let’s do something for them.” Half the program was enacted, the first part. The inspector general for the Treasury Department, Neil Barofsky, was so outraged, he was writing articles. He even wrote a book about the scandal. That was the good guys, the Obama administration.
Now we are talking about the bad guys, the Trump Administration, off the spectrum. That is what has been happening with the stimulus funds. One of the major funds, about 80% of it went to people who earned over a million dollars a year. You just gave the figures before about the cornucopia that is flowing to the superrich [inaudible] others. Well, that will be the way the vaccine is distributed too, if we retain our current social order.
We don’t have to do that. Maybe Trump was sent by God to Earth, but the system that we live in, it’s humanly designed and can be changed. Can readily be changed. The coming election could lead to a change if there is real dedication to getting rid of the malignancy in the White House that is destroying us, and changing the former political party, still called a political party, that backs the radical insurgency. That can be tamed and returned into something like it was. We can get a stable government run by people who care somewhat about the population.
And if popular activism continues, which has made a big impact, it’s worth—the Sanders campaign was a remarkable success, and Sanders joined the planning of the Biden campaign. It’s had a big impact on the program. It is the most progressive program of any candidate in recent history, maybe as far back as Roosevelt. The climate change program is not what I would like, not what you would like, but is better than anything that has been proposed by anyone. It was partially written by the activists of Sunrise Movement. The leadership of the movement strongly endorses it.
If popular activism continues, it can ensure or at least make it highly probable that these programs will be enacted and improved. That’s the key. That’s real politics. Keep the pressure on daily, not just push a lever every four years. That’s what has effect. If that can continue, we can escape from this crisis. There are ways to deal with the environmental crisis. There are ways to deal with a pandemic. Of course nuclear war, yes, there are ways to deal with it. They are not insoluble. But you have to grasp the opportunity.
Now as far as distributing the vaccine is concerned, we are going to be facing real problems. One is the radical inequality in the society, which is just going to push the more wealthy and privileged to the front. That has to be stopped. The vaccine should go to those who need it, who are mostly the poor and vulnerable. They are the ones who are suffering most and they should be up front. People in impossible—like the concentration camps not far from where I live, on the southern border with Mexico, the pandemic is raging there in the prisons. Raging. All of these have to be dealt with.
We’re going to face another problem. The anti-science thrust of this administration has accelerated a tendency in the country to be opposed to science. It’s very strong. There’s a strong anti-vaccination movement, which says, “We can’t take vaccines. They are too dangerous.” You’ve probably seen a story circulating that the pandemic was created by Bill Gates and George Soros to try to control the world population. Very widespread. A recent investigation by Pew Research Center found that among Republicans, of those who are familiar with the story, which is a great many, that almost 60% believe it. These are people who listen to Rush Limbaugh, who tells his 30 million people in the audience—this is Trump’s favorite news man, just got the Medal of Freedom—he tells his audience there are four corners of deceit—government, media, academia, and science. They thrive on deceit. OK?
Tens of millions of people hear that kind of thing. They see what you described in the White House with the scientists pushed to the side. “We don’t want science.” OK. They believe it. Not surprising. That is what people are inundated with. And coming back to the distribution of the virus, they may refuse to take the vaccine. A person who refuses to take the vaccine is not just harming him or herself. It’s like a person who says “I’ve got an assault rifle. I want to run around the streets shooting it at random.” That’s what it means not to wear a mask or not to take the vaccine.
AMY GOODMAN: Do people have reason to be afraid, Professor Chomsky, about a vaccine that has been developed, in Trump’s words, the name of the program “Warp Speed”? That in his zeal at deregulation to get a vaccine, which so many people want around the world, that there would be a danger in the original vaccines?
NOAM CHOMSKY: If vaccines are rushed through, there is always a danger. It means that many of the possibilities simply haven’t been tested. That’s what happens when you rush things through. Maybe the balance of costs and benefits says you should do it anyway. But what are we going to do? We are talking about the United states, how to distribute a vaccine. What about Africa? What about Yemen? What about poor areas of Latin America? And what about the huge mass of deeply impoverished people in India? What is going to happen to them? That’s most of the population of the world.
Well, they get some relief from the World Health Organization. It hasn’t been discussed as far as I know, but something pretty shocking just took place. When Trump, as I said before, flailing around to try to find some scapegoat to cover up the fact that he is responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans, one of his targets is the World Health Organization. First, defunding. Second, trying to destroy it.
What does this mean to tens of thousands if not millions of poor people in Africa? The World Health Organization is what provides them with medical support and treatment for the many diseases that they face all the time. Now it’s getting worse under the virus. What does it mean for Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world? Thanks to our providing Saudi Arabia with arms and intelligence so that they can destroy the country, a large part of it. The population, they have a terrible pandemic raging. The World Health Organization is one of the few means of providing medical support for them. So let’s withdraw it.
Pulling out of the World Health Organization, defunding it is threatening the lives of huge, uncountable numbers of people. Why isn’t that a headline? Or even a small story somewhere? It is shocking what we are overlooking. Going back to your question of distribution of vaccines, they ought to be right in front. We should be doing something for them.
There’s at least one country in the world that is showing genuine internationalism, providing medical aid and support for people who need it. When there was a pandemic in northern Italy, a serious epidemic in northern Italy, there were some rich countries to the north—Germany, Austria—which had it pretty much in control. They didn’t send doctors. Doctors were sent from Cuba, a poor country that the United States has been trying to crush for 60 years. They were able to send doctors to northern Italy, as they’ve done before and elsewhere. Not the rich countries in what’s called the European Union.
Well, that is the kind of world we live in. This is sometimes covered and discussed in the U.S. media, but the way it is done is to accuse the Cuban government of using slave labor to enrich themselves. That is what it means for Cuba to send doctors to work in dangerous places to deal with a pandemic, as they’ve done many times before. It’s true that the Cuban government takes part of the funding for this to use for their medical system, their remarkable medical system. So you turn that through the U.S. propaganda system and it becomes using slave labor to enrich themselves. This is the country that we are crushing, starting with a terrorist war and vicious economic strangulation. The whole world is opposed to it. When it comes up in the United Nations every year, the world votes unanimously against the United States. One exception, Israel, which has to go along with the U.S. Everyone else opposed. Who cares? We’re the global pariah state. We don’t care about anybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Israel. Thousands of people have been protesting the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. Also protesting his corruption. This comes as the United Nations warns Israel’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank has hindered Palestinian efforts to control the pandemic. The UN Special Envoy made the remarks a day after Israeli authorities demolished a coronavirus testing center in the West Bank city of Hebron. Can you talk about what is happening there, both the issue of the coronavirus pandemic and Netanyahu’s express attempt, any day now, to annex the West Bank?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, what’s happening with the virus is pretty horrible. You look at the records of the main Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, they actually report cases in which settlers, what’s called the Hilltop Youth—extremist right-wing, ultra-religious settlers in settlements that even the government of Israel regards as illegal, but leaves them alone and supports them—some of them did have coronavirus. These young, crazed militants broke into Palestinian villages to try to spread the virus. And that’s at the extreme end. Destroying those centers as you described, is the legal part of it.
In fact, Israel is treating the Palestinians, it has for a long time, in modern history, pretty much the way the United States is treating immigrants in the virtual concentration camps south of where I live. The annexation, which they are holding off for the moment, basically formalizes policies that have been implemented over the last 50 years.
This is both major political groupings. The Labor Party has pretty much disappeared, but it used to be the major party. Under the Labor Party, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and others, under Shimon Peres, under the Labor Party as under the Likud-based coalition, the same policies have been carried out, trying to create a greater Israel, which takes over everything in the West Bank that is valuable and integrates it into Israel with huge infrastructure projects, and ban Palestinians of course. You can drive from Ma’ale Adumim—built mostly during the Clinton years, a town east of Jerusalem, kind of virtually bisects the West Bank—you can drive from there to Tel Aviv without even seeing a Palestinian on a superhighway.
So you take what’s important, but avoid the population centers. Israel does not want to bring Palestinian populations into the greater Israel they are constructing. That is what is called the demographic problem—too many non-Jews in a Jewish state; can’t have that. So we want to avoid the population centers, don’t take over Nablus and other population centers. Take over the areas that are of value to us. There is a Palestinian population and try to get rid of them as much as possible by making life unlivable, or else isolate them in unviable cantons, probably almost 200 of them in the areas that Israel is taking over, where people are cut off from their fields, from their olive groves. They have to pass through checkpoints to cross the road. Just make life as impossible as possible, and try to limit the population and take over what is valuable.
The Jordan Valley, about a third of the West Bank, take that over. Palestinian populations have mostly been removed by one or another technique. Set up military firing zones, where nobody is allowed in it. So you kick out the Palestinians, then you put in a Jewish settlement and tie it to the electrical and water grid. Pretty soon, it’s settled by Jews. Do the same with the Gurion Park, and so on. And that’s the policy for the last 50 years. Do it slowly, sort of under the radar, so outsiders can pretend they don’t see it. But that is what has been happening. Annexation will essentially formalize it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I wanted to ask what you would like to see happen here in the U.S. in the months leading up to this election, which you have said is the most important in human history. What should happen here in the country, in the U.S.? What should people be doing to organize?
NOAM CHOMSKY: They should be doing anything they can think of—demonstrations, protests, political organization, pressure on every pressure point you can think of, to try to block the very transparent effort of Trump, backed by his party, to set up major military confrontations, which will be an excuse for trying to either eliminate the election or to affect its results so that he does not have to leave the White House.
Also stressing the fact that we are in a major crisis. The pandemic is the immediate crisis; meanwhile, the environmental crisis is growing seriously, has to be addressed now. We cannot wait. We must put into practice means to mitigate the crisis and overcome it. To get off of fossil fuels. To get to zero net emissions within a short time. All of this has to be done now.
We have to strongly act constantly to try to prevent the crazed lunatics in the White House from carrying out nuclear weapons tests. That’s the next thing on the agenda, breaking down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Trying to pressure them, it’s possible, to renegotiate the new START treaty. If the Democrats win the election, they’ll do it, even thought it may be too late to get anywhere. All of these things have to be done right away. No let-up. We are in a very dangerous period for the next few months. What happens may determine the fate of the country, the fate of the species.