If you think we’ve just had ‘a year like no other’, you need a history lesson

The perception that 2020 was unprecedented is inaccurate, says Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson in Mumbai, 2011. The British historian is critical of what he calls the ‘Davos syndrome’ of focusing on the threat of climate change to the exclusion of everything else. Photograph Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Niall Ferguson in Mumbai, 2011. The British historian is critical of what he calls the ‘Davos syndrome’ of focusing on the threat of climate change to the exclusion of everything else. Photograph Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

 

The day after I speak to historian Niall Ferguson, Dominic Cummings appears at a House of Commons committee, where he recalls the words of UK deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara on March 13th, 2020. “I’ve been told for years that there is a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We’re in huge trouble. I think we’re absolutely f**ked, I think this country’s heading for a disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.”

Behold the collapse of the long-laid plans of a supposedly advanced democracy as it slithers from complacency into panic. How did this happen? Ferguson has some answers and plenty of context.

It’s early in the morning in the Glasgow-born US citizen’s home in northern California, and we can hear his young children having their breakfast. Sun streams through the windows, but we’re cheerfully discussing war, famine, pestilence and death. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse gallop across the pages of Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, but he is less concerned with the proximate causes of disasters – a mutated virus, a crop failure, a military conflict – than with the ways in which societies act to increase or mitigate the deaths that ensue.

Ferguson’s title is lifted from “We’re doomed!”, the catchphrase uttered with relish by fellow Scot Private Frazer in the classic BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. “Ultimately our relationship to death is a strange one. We’re a bit in denial about it and we’re a bit obsessed with it.” We’re particularly obsessed, he says, with mass disaster. “Because the end of the world is such an interesting idea. And yet when an actual disaster happens, we act shocked and surprised.”

In part, Doom is a rebuke to the overuse of words like “unprecedented” and phrases such as “a year like no other”. It offers a sweeping compendium of the many appalling catastrophes that have befallen us throughout human history. Covid-19 seems a bit of a damp squib by comparison.

“The perception that 2020 was a year like no other was essentially based on an ignorance of history,” Ferguson says. “The 1950s saw some pandemics that were global in scale and comparable in their impact on population. It’s just that we’ve forgotten about them.” Doom specifically compares the “Asian flu” of 1957. “In terms of excess mortality, its impact was almost exactly the same as 2020.”

Glittering career

Ferguson’s glittering career has brought him from Oxford via Cambridge and Yale to his current position as a senior fellow at Stanford University, producing a clutch of bestselling books and popular TV series along the way, and placing him among those international superstars, such as Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond, who cross traditional academic disciplinary lines to offer sweeping grand narratives that populate the Most Read non-fiction shelves in bookshops around the world.

He’s also a superstar of the intellectual Right (though he’d probably prefer to be described as a classical liberal) and his books defending such left-wing betes noires as the British empire and Henry Kissinger have put him in the front line of today’s culture wars, a position he seems to enjoy.

There’s some nose-tweaking of progressives in Doom – white Black Lives Matters protesters are likened to the flagellants who roamed Europe whipping themselves in public during the Black Death – but most of Ferguson’s attention is on the failure of organisations such as the Centers for Disease Control in the US to react in time to the threat of Covid-19. It’s simplistic, he argues, to lay the blame for unnecessary deaths exclusively at the door of incompetent populists such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

“The temptation to pin the blame on Trump was irresistible for journalists who already had nursed a loathing of him from the very minute that he began his campaign for the presidency in 2015,” says Ferguson. “In truth, the president sits atop more than 60 different federal agencies, of which at least five had some responsibility for pandemic preparedness.

“He’s got a bunch of advisers. As it happens, they were deeply divided... But that’s not really why excess mortality happened on the scale that it did. The reasons for that are, firstly, the failure of testing; secondly, the utter failure to exploit technology for contact tracing; and thirdly, the total ineffectiveness of any kind of quarantining or isolating of sick people. And that that’s really not in the president’s domain.

“So I think we need to stop telling ourselves in the United States that if only someone else had been president, there wouldn’t have been 600,000 deaths. That’s a total delusion. Whoever was president, the institutions of public health in the United States would have done badly.”

Degeneration

Still, on paper the US was the best prepared country for this kind of public health emergency. It ranked number one in a 2019 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The World Health Organisation also had the US top of the class in terms of preparedness. It’s just that none of it worked. Why? Ferguson blames a degeneration in the quality and efficiency of the administrative state.

“There was failure when Katrina struck. There was failure in financial regulation when the financial crisis struck. Did the American federal government do a good job of 9/11? You look at the disasters of the last 20 years and you’ll find the same pathologies in each case. Lots and lots of bureaucrats writing memoranda and plans. But when the crisis happens, a tremendously cumbersome, sluggish response that often arrives at exactly the wrong conclusion.”

Ferguson doesn’t think the problem is unique to the US. “The same bizarre fiasco plays out in the UK, where there’s a perfectly well set-up pandemic preparedness plan.” He compares the response unfavourably with what happened 60 years ago.

“The institutions of government in the 1950s were smaller in the sense of personnel and they had a different culture. Many of the people who were responding to the 1957-58 Asian flu had been in government in the war and wartime government was a very different beast, not least because during the war people had to learn new ways of doing things, to react rapidly, to adapt new technologies as swiftly as possible. We’ve lost that nimbleness... But I think also because of a new ethos, a new culture of safety which emanates partly from law schools and partly from corporations facing class action lawsuits.”

The perfect example of all this, he says, is the pandemic preparedness plans of pre-2020. “Because they gave the illusion of preparedness, they satisfied the bureaucratic imperative. But they knew that these plans were really not worth the PDF they were saved on. And that seems to me to illustrate the general point that you can do your job in a bureaucratic agency as long as you produce enough verbiage to give the impression that you’ve covered every eventuality. But what you’re really trying to cover is your ass.”

Ferguson acknowledges he may himself have been a superspreader in early 2020. In January and February he was travelling constantly on long-haul flights between the US, Asia and Europe, on speaking engagements at universities, conferences and at the world economic summit in Davos. In mid-March he retreated to the safety of remote Montana with his wife, the Somali-born Dutch-American activist and former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and their two small children.

“I suspected that I was ill by about mid-January,” he says. “I kept travelling because I didn’t really want to contemplate the possibility that I had this particular disease and that I might be spreading it. It took me weeks to come out of that denial and recognise that I really had to stop travelling. That’s part of the reason I tell the story. But the other part is to illustrate the fact that you couldn’t find out in the United States in early 2020 whether or not you had Covid-19 because there was no testing whatsoever. So I’ll never know.”

Along with his own self-denial, he encountered widespread denial among the global elites at Davos. “To my frustration, nobody really seemed aware of the fact that we were hurtling towards a pandemic, that it had already begun,” he says, criticising what he calls the “Davos syndrome” of focusing on the threat of climate change to the exclusion of everything else.

Similarly he believes other risks are being ignored. The second cold war between the US and China is already well under way, Ferguson says, and a full military conflict between the two powers is possible.

Flashpoint

“My sense is that we are underestimating the risk of a really big war in the world today, and that could happen soon,” he says. “It’s almost like all the ingredients are in place. You’ve got a flashpoint in Taiwan. You’ve got two very heavily armed superpowers. You’ve got commitments that are clearly incompatible and you’ve got domestic pressures that increase the probability of escalation.

“I’m trying to remind people that the ways in which people got killed prematurely in the 20th century were predominantly through war and totalitarianism. We still have a totalitarian regime and it’s actually even more powerful in economic and technological terms than the Soviet Union was. This is the kind of thing that I think Doom is trying to tell people.

“Just because you’re fascinated by an apocalyptic climate disaster doesn’t mean that’s the disaster you’re going to get.”

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is published by Allen Lane. Listen to Hugh Linehan’s conversation with Niall Ferguson on The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast