Chance ‘blown’ to get ahead of Covid-19, says economic historian

Author Adam Tooze says evolving virus is ‘teaching us the lesson’ of failing to prepare

The failure of governments to build vaccine programmes globally to tackle coronavirus is "the disgrace of the last 12 months", renowned economic historian Adam Tooze has said.

The New York-based history professor at Columbia University and author of works about Nazi Germany, the 2008 financial crash and the Covid-19 pandemic with his new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy, believes the world has brought the Omicron variant on itself.

This is down to a failure to protect everyone as richer countries boost their populations with third doses when poorer countries still have not administered first doses.

He argues that the failure of governments to communicate the critical message that “until everyone is safe, no one is safe” and to scale up investment in vaccine technology and production, from the billions into the trillions, has shown that the world has not learned the lessons of 2020.


Tooze says the new variant is a consequence of “making choices” to deal with the virus nationally but not globally and that, as long as that continues, “the more we are rolling the dice” with the possibility of new mutations of the coronavirus emerging in an unvaccinated world.

"The disease is teaching us the lesson. If we didn't understand it, the disease is showing us. We haven't coped with it. We all fell short of where China was at, which was to contain the first round," Tooze told The Irish Times during a Zoom interview from New York.

“We have now in the last nine months blown the chance to get ahead of the disease globally through massive vaccinations so we have chosen to live in this world that we’re living in. We have chosen to have this variant.”

The British historian was speaking ahead of his appearance at a virtual event in Dublin today on the subject: "The challenging of mobilising Ireland in a post-Covid era", where he will join a panel discussion with Department of Health secretary general Robert Watt among others.

Tooze sees the Covid-19 pandemic as the first economic crisis of the “Anthropocene era” – the current period of Earth’s geological history when humankind’s impact on nature is impacting on the world’s population in unpredictable and sometimes disastrous ways.

In his view, the “great acceleration” – when this impact has quickly intensified and become global in nature – requires a radical rethink of world views and how the world responds to manage multiple crises, beyond improvisation and short-term measures used to deal with earlier crises. Tooze believes leaders are managing these crises in a “new era of ad hockery” when there needs to be more extensive, collective action: a massive global response to a huge global crisis.

Billy Glennon, chief executive of Vision Consulting, who has organised today's event, said the big question Tooze poses – how to prepare ourselves for action in a world where the challenges are different? – points to the need to move beyond the left/right "socialist versus capitalist" debate and to bring public and private organisations together to come up with better responses.

“The models and rules of thumb and policies and structures of the past, which have worked well, are not going to be enough,” he said.

‘Disaster avoidance’

Meanwhile, Tooze says the pandemic has turned “vast disaster avoidance” into a “multi-trillion dollar business” and that requires similar investment to put people in a position to be able to respond.

“We should have the top virologists around the world sit down and say what are the six worst-case variants we could have? And then let’s assign squads of people and multiple-fund squads of people to pre-envision that possibility,” he said.

“If we don’t end up getting payoff from this particular coronavirus, and its mutations, we know from the SARS experience, we will get it from some other one which comes along predictably in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Beyond the clear public health benefits from doubling or tripling science budgets in a bid to end the pandemic, governments should see this as “incredible investment opportunities” and creating high-quality jobs that this generation hopes for our children and children’s children.

“It is exactly the sort of thing that an economy like Ireland ought to be developing a niche capacity for in various ways,” he said.

“One of the secrets to Ireland’s economic success is highly skilled labour and this is will be precisely the kind of line where you would expect to be able to build capacity, maybe not for this coronavirus, but maybe for some other version of this.”

While this investment will require redundancy and a degree of subsidy, taxpayers should “quite happily” pay this as “some sort of insurance premium” to give us a chance to respond.

“Otherwise, basically, all our plans for 2022 and 2023 are now in jeopardy,” he said.

To tackle global vaccine inequality, Tooze says richer countries, including Ireland, should "twin" with poorer countries, such as in Africa, to drive vaccinations there. Irish leaders, in politics, science and economics, should "gain leverage" to make a difference in multi-lateral bodies such as the European Union and Covax, the international vaccination agency.

He says governments have failed to recognise and act on what is in their self-interest.

Vaccinating high-risk parts of the world "where the pandemic is running wild" should be part of the same calculation for the Irish Government as vaccinating high– and low-risk people in Ireland.

“This is a conflict of interest. It is not, however, a question of whether or not you protect your own. The question is how you best protect your own,” said Tooze.

“The failure of political and governmental imagination is not to recognise that by protecting people in Africa you are protecting your own.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times