10 May 2021

The politics of catastrophe – or why Covid is anything but ‘unprecedented’

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Throughout this pandemic, we’ve seen how crucial an appreciation of context is to good decision-making.

Judging whether to pause life-saving vaccines because of a blood clot risk requires first understanding the risk of stopping the rollout itself. Likewise, the high fiscal cost of advanced purchasing orders of vaccines by governments can only be understood in the context of the massive ongoing costs of the pandemic. And a country’s death toll can really only be held as a definitive sign of failure once we’ve assessed the performance of similar countries who implemented different policies.

Historian Niall Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, is not a full retrospective on the current pandemic. Nor was it designed to be, given that most of it written in the middle of 2020. But it performs a crucial public service – putting the events of the last year into a meaningful historical context, via an exhilarating sweep of historical catastrophes.

That’s not to say this is simply a blow-by-blow comparison of the Covid pandemic with other outbreaks of infectious disease, though Ferguson explores these with aplomb. No, from the eruption of Vesuvius to the Irish potato famine, Ferguson paints a picture of all manner of disasters, crises and accidents; the political incompetence that worsened them; the social networks that caused, spread, or alleviated them; and the economic and geopolitical environments in which they occurred.

How often have you read the term “unprecedented” applied to the past year’s events? Ferguson shows that most aspects of this viral outbreak and our reaction to it are anything but.

The supposed unprecedented nature of enforced quarantines? Commonplace, in one form or another, in plague-ridden Europe. The “unprecedented” speed of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout? Perhaps, in the context of the modern regulatory state and on such a huge scale, but in the 1957 flu pandemic the US rolled out a reasonably effective shot in just over three months. The deadening hand of bureaucracy making things worse? Nothing new either. From the sinking of the Titanic to Chernobyl, middle management is often the real point of failure – a point Ferguson explains by citing the American physicist Richard Feynman.

The key starting point of the book is that “we cannot study the history of catastrophes, natural or man-made…apart from the history of economics, society, culture, and politics”. In economic terms, even natural disasters aren’t purely “exogenous shocks”. An unpredicted earthquake can hit a city, but the disaster wouldn’t be so great if humans hadn’t built the metropolis on a fault line.

Likewise, novel pathogens inevitably arise. But, self-evidently, given the different Covid-19 performances of countries around the world, stopping the spread of contagion means appreciating the social networks they attack and how those networks adapt to government policies or voluntary changes to behaviour. In other words, we cannot easily separate out “the virus” from the policy choices in response to it.

In assessing a catastrophe, one is therefore faced with two difficulties. First, to understand the nature of what is usually an initially uncertain threat. Second, to appreciate just how structural features of the world it hits and the societal reaction to it will affect how the crisis plays out.

Ferguson’s deep knowledge of both economics and networks – a topic explored in his previous book, The Square and the Tower –  brings a unique perspective to framing how best to deal with Covid-19. He knows enough about trade-offs to understand that crude government lockdowns can be needlessly destructive compared to more targeted measures. Yet he also has extensive knowledge of network theories and knows enough about the specifics of this virus to dismiss wishful thinking about basing policy solely around an individual’s personal mortality risk.

Indeed, Ferguson was one of those who identified early on that the lowest-cost response was probably finding ways – through testing and tracing – to isolate the infected and to mitigate against super-spreader events through the targeted closure of large gatherings and schools. This was, of course, largely the approach adopted by South Korea and Taiwan, as the West inanely debated full lockdown vs. just isolating the elderly.

Even though this book is about so much more than evaluating the first few months of Covid-19, anyone trying to produce a pandemic retrospective would be wise to read it. It dispels lazy tendencies to ascribe all outcomes to Presidents or Prime Ministers, while warning against the inevitable incentives to “fight the last war”.

A theme running through my own book, Economics In One Virus, is that any evaluation of this crisis must instead consider the economics of why certain bad decisions were made. I suspect Ferguson agrees. He smartly concludes that the uncertain nature of future threats means resilience comes from adaptability and curing bureaucratic dysfunction, rather than overly specific plans for every eventuality.

Some critics have suggested that Ferguson, at times, sounds as if he downplaying the Covid-19 threat a little—no doubt a product, in part, of writing Doom before the massive winter wave.

My own small gripe was his implying that the broad willingness to ride out the 1957 pandemic without major changes to people’s lifestyles implies that America was more resilient back then than now. While I too worry about the longer-term political and societal consequences of the state playing saviour, it’s difficult to look at how technology and wealth mitigated the effects of Covid-19 and believe these benefits do not hugely exceed the past readiness of more hospital capacity and tougher resolves. Would you have rather lived through this recent threat now or 64 years ago? I think the answer speaks for itself, even in spite of the evident mistakes that have exacerbated the costs of the crisis.

Still, this minor quibble shouldn’t detract from what is a quite breathtaking project, and one in which you will learn something new from every finely researched case study. Doom is far more than just a page-turner, though that it certainly is: it’s that most precious of things in a history book – an account of the past that truly helps us understand where we are today.

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Ryan Bourne is Chair For The Public Understanding Of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.