Monday, January 3, 2022

Niall Ferguson On Disasters and What We Can Learn from History

This past year I discovered the writings of Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian and author of numerous insightful books about the growth and decay of civilizations and the challenges we have lived through and will face again tomorrow. Here are some notes from a YouTube video I listened to titled "Humanity must learn from its mistakes."

He had been invited to Budapest to discuss his most recent book, Doom: The Politics of CatastropheThe discussion took place in September 2021, which helps give context to the introductory portion about Covid-19. I will leave a link at the end of this page in the hopes that you will watch it in its entirety. 

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Ferguson began by reminding us that from the start of this pandemic we have seen two narratives in operation. On the one hand there were those who said it was not a big deal, or maybe even a hoax. On the other hand we had those saying that the pandemic is as bad as the Spanish Flu and we must lock people in their homes or millions and millions will die. Some experts estimated that it would kill 2.2 million people in the U.S. alone.

By September last fall it was apparent that the Covid-19 impact lies somewhere between the extremes. How bad has it been? 

Clearly is has been as bad as the H2N2 SARS outbreak of 1957-58. But it has not been nearly as deadly at the Spanish Flu. According to Ferguson, the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 killed two percent of the population of the whole world. By way of contrast, the death toll for Covid-19 has been only 0.06 percent, less than one-tenth that of the Flu of a century ago.

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Ferguson states that even if we don't accept the lab leak theory for Covid-19, China is culpable because of its attempt to cover-up the disaster in its early stages.  The cover-up helped enable the spread.

The point he drives home, however, is that there will always be disasters and we can't predict when they will happen. We don't know when the next war or major earthquake will occur, but we do know they will come. It then becomes our responsibility to improve the ways we cope. 

The U.S. Health Department had a 36-page preparedness plan on hand in the event of a pandemic like this. It became useless in real life. Things don't unfold as anticipated. It only provided officials with a false sense of security. Why do these big government agencies fail?

The host of the program asked Niall Ferguson why he didn't wait till the pandemic was past before publishing this book. Then he could have had more information about how it was resolved.

Ferguson replied that he is 57 years old and Covid will be here for another century. There is plenty to be learned from the past with regards to disasters, and to be gleaned from the past 18 months that can be applied here and now. "Applied history really matters," he said. "We must learn from these disasters."

Niall Ferguson is a Senior Fellow at Stanford and Harvard. The 48 minute talk has many insights that are worth pondering.

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