The following is an edited transcript of an interview which took place with Niall Ferguson.
In your book, you note that COVID-19 exposed the failure of the public health bureaucracy in the United States and other countries as well. What were some of these failings? Was it simply a failure to acknowledge and learn from the past year? Or are there other troubling political and social or economic factors that have not been in the mainstream?
It is fascinating to look at how Western Europe, North America, and Australia, countries that have a lot in common economically and politically, failed in different ways. The Canadian and American experiences seem very different. The British and Italian experiences seem very different. When you take a step back, however, there are a few common features. First, nobody in the Western world understood or digested the implications of SARS and MERS the way the Taiwanese and the South Koreans did. They understood that you could have a coronavirus that was much more contagious and at the same time, less deadly, compared with SARS, and thought about what that implied. I don’t think we did and that partly explains why very few Western countries were quick on the draw.
It was obvious to me by the second or third week of January 2020 that we were in the first inning of a pandemic. There were just too many red flags at once. Nonetheless, very little happened between January and the first two weeks of March in the United States and the United Kingdom. The things that mattered never happened in the U.S. Testing completely failed, thus we had no clue who had the virus. There was no serious attempt at contract tracing, even though, theoretically, the technology companies could have done it. We did not isolate the vulnerable, elderly care homes were not protected, and quarantining was not enforced. There were rules, but nobody abided by them. Those things together explain why there were two great waves of excess mortality in the United States in the spring of 2020, and then in the latter part of the year.
I do not think the highly publicized decisions taken by President Trump mattered enormously in terms of the total death toll. We made some very basic errors that allowed the virus to spread very rapidly across the country. That same story played out internationally as well. Northern Italy was hit very hard early on, the UK had a torrid time of it, but there were countries that did just as badly, or worse. Ultimately, we did not fully appreciate what a Coronavirus pandemic would be like. We were ready for an influenza pandemic because we knew what those were like. Public health experts throughout the Western world made broadly similar errors.
What are the key takeaways from the Covid-19 pandemic that need to be addressed so that we can be more resilient for the next disaster? Of these, are any of the lessons new? Or are we stuck repeating the same mistakes?
You never get the disaster you are prepared for. Disasters aren’t predictable, they come in many shapes and sizes. We may not get another pandemic for some time, but there will be something else. Meticulous bureaucratic preparedness is not preparedness at all. On paper, the US was better prepared than Canada for a pandemic. That is very clear from the survey that the Economist Intelligence Unit produced with Johns Hopkins in 2019. The US and the UK were the top-ranked countries for pandemic preparedness. On paper there were plans, but they did not work when they came into contact with a pandemic. There was something broken about the way the public health bureaucracy defined preparedness—36-page reports and PowerPoint decks. There was no real preparedness, no tests, no simulations, and no exercises.
We need to discourage pseudo-preparedness in the public sector. Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while testifying in London a few weeks ago, pointed out that the whole system had failed. I worry that we are just as badly prepared for a massive cyberattack targeting North American gridlines, the internet, ATMs, and cell phones, even though the Pentagon and the NSC probably have fancy preparedness plans in place.
How has the pandemic, and the varied national responses, affected great power politics? Looking at the West, has the response demonstrated strength, exposed vulnerabilities, both? Has the pandemic served as a distraction from other security threats?
The standard editorial commentary of 2020 was that the pandemic would be good for China and terrible for the United States. China seemingly brought Covid under control more quickly and the US appeared to have blundered into a public health disaster. I was always skeptical of that view because it gave too much credit to China and not enough to the US and the West. China is to blame for the outbreak. There is no getting around that. China systematically sought to cover up the crisis in December and into January, which has harmed their standing in the world, not only in North America but all over Europe and indeed in Asia. China has lost a great deal of credibility in the past 18 months. The way the Chinese sought to bend the narrative with their “wolf warrior” diplomacy was very self-destructive. It did not work at all. In fact, I think it backfired.
The United States started out very badly but got its act together in a variety of ways. Lockdowns have been a very blunt instrument. However, with enough fiscal and monetary effort, America offset the shock, resulting in a relatively compressed economic crisis. Economically, the US came roaring out of the pandemic. China was going to save the world with its vaccines. Countries that have used them, from Mongolia to Chile, still see their case numbers going up. They are some of the lowest-efficacy vaccines on the market. The most effective vaccines have come from the US, Germany, and the UK. China has performed more poorly than had been expected when it comes to managing the economic shock and vaccine development. Even under Trump, the US was performing better by the end of 2020 than most commentators acknowledged at the time.
I have argued for more than two years now that we are already in the early stages of a Second Cold War. Covid-19 has made [this] Cold War more intense and has widened the gap between the U.S and China. China has been cut off to an extent that many people do not appreciate. We do not know when China will be open to foreign travel. They are vaccinating like crazy, but if the vaccines don’t work against the Delta variant, they are going to have to stay closed indefinitely. The pandemic has been an important turning point in US-China relations. The G7 and the Europeans no longer have a choice either. They cannot afford to be non-aligned, and they certainly cannot align with China.
With Trump gone and Biden in the White House, a transatlantic strategy with respect to China seems much easier. I’m not sure how the Chinese could regain their pre-pandemic status. The reputational damage has been immense. Attitudes towards China have shifted dramatically in the last 18 months, particularly in the developing world. China has become quite isolated diplomatically. How to lose friends and alienate people—that really summarizes Beijing’s policies over the past 18 months. This is not the way you play cold war. The First Cold War was decided partly by the superiority of the American alliance system. I think we can expect this to be the case in a Second Cold War scenario, even if it is a different alliance system, with a less influential NATO. Partnerships in Asia are more important now.
How difficult is it for you as a historian to write about contemporary events as they’re unfolding? Has anything happened since the publication of Doom, that would have provided additional insight into the pandemic that you would like to speak to?
It is difficult to write about history as it is happening. On the other hand, it should be difficult to write about the very recent past, and journalists make it seem all too easy. That old line about the first draft of history being written by journalists is quite misleading because they are not really trying to write history. They are writing journalism, and journalism is different because it makes everything seem unprecedented and disastrous. There is no sense of scale—everything is reported as if it is important. In fact, nearly all of it is not. When you try to write history as it is happening in real-time, you have to write about current events in an un-journalistic way.
Upon finishing Doom, I could see at least two plausible futures, one pretty good, and one pretty bad. In one scenario, everything went well, the vaccines worked, and the pandemic would have been over by now. In the other scenario, the vaccines did not work very well, and other factors prolonged the pandemic. I think we have ended up somewhere in the middle. The vaccines have worked very well, but their distribution is so skewed that the pandemic is by no means over.
What do I wish I had known about when I was still writing? Everything that has happened since. Things can change quite rapidly. What we consign to the category of history—things that are so long ago that they somehow seem settled—are often not actually settled. In truth, everything is becoming history, with each passing moment. The challenge is to identify that which is significant and screen out the noise.
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is the author of sixteen books, including The Pity of War, The House of Rothschild, Empire, Civilization and Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist, which won the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Prize. He is an award-making filmmaker, too, having won an international Emmy for his PBS series The Ascent of Money. In addition to writing a regular column for Bloomberg Opinion, he is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, an advisory firm.