Critical lessons from the COVID crisis – from a leading historian

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Earlier this month, historian Niall Ferguson spoke to COSM 2021 about the real lessons from the bizarre year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Niall ferguson

A reader might be forgiven for wondering if, in the cacophony of conflicting claims, opinions and prophecies of doom, there are any useful lessons to be learned (other than: disabled TV).

Ferguson believes there are indeed lessons – if we compare the recent pandemic and how it has been handled with past pandemics. In his recent book, Doom: the politics of disaster (2021), he argues that “all disasters are somehow man-made” and that, despite advances in science, we strive to deal with them better and better:

Yet in 2020 the responses of many developed countries, including the United States, to a new virus from China have been severely botched. Why? Why have only a few Asian countries learned the right lessons from SARS and MERS? While populist leaders have certainly performed poorly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Niall Ferguson argues that deeper pathologies were at work – pathologies already visible in our responses to previous disasters. – from the publisher

Its analysis is based on several key assumptions:

?? The worst of the pandemic is behind us. By ignoring the frequent alarms in the media regarding the variants of the Greek alphabet (Delta, Kappa, Zeta, etc.), the disease becomes endemic. In other words, if the story is a guide, there will be multiple future waves in a population that is already learning coping strategies, but it will not be a crisis.

➤ It is not known how many people have died prematurely from COVID. Estimates range from 5 million to 19.8 million worldwide. Ferguson told the assembly that the significant measure to focus on now is excess mortality. This includes “people who died for reasons not directly attributable to the SARS COV-2 virus but whose deaths were accelerated by the conditions of the pandemic, people who were unable to make it to hospital to see the doctor about their heart disease, or couldn’t get their cancer treated early enough. Excess mortality is decreasing.

➤ The Covid-19 is nowhere close in severity to the great pandemics of the past, not even the recent past: humanity. We’re really talking here, at this point, of a death toll of 0.066% of the world’s population. If you buy the Economistthe highest estimate of 0.26% is an insignificant number compared to the Black Death. This is an order of magnitude lower than the death toll from the Spanish flu of 1918-1919. In fact, it was not until this year that COVID-19 surpassed the Asian flu of 1957-1958 in terms of mortality relative to the global population. “

Emergency hospital during flu outbreak, Camp Funston, Kansas. Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic (NCP 1603), National Museum of Health and Medicine. The epidemic has disproportionately killed young people, not the old ones.

Pandemics you’ve never heard of

“And most people had never heard of the 1957-58 influenza pandemic because it was largely forgotten, even by those who lived through it. It does not figure as a major event in our historical memory. We think of Sputnik. We don’t think of the Asian flu. The thing that this current pandemic is closest to is something that happened in 1889-1890, which might have been a coronavirus pandemic. Contemporaries called it the Russian flu.

“I’m pretty sure none of you had ever heard of this pandemic until I told you about it. No, because it is not a major historical event. It’s not the kind of thing that goes into the history books. “So it helps us to feel that this [COVID-19] was not a very large pandemic by historical standards. It was up there with the Russian flu of 1889-1890.

To put the statistics in perspective, Ferguson cited figures from Britain in 2020 which showed death rates were similar to those of 1918 (Spanish flu), 1940 (Battle of Britain) and 1951.

1951? It was a bad winter for the disease, but “it is remarkable that a year characterized by excess mortality, as severe as the one we experienced in Britain last year, has been almost entirely forgotten.”

So he asks, “Why then did this one feel so different?” Why has this been so problematic? What about a lot of traumatic people?

And responds: “It is not the death toll that makes COVID-19 such a historically significant event. From this point of view, it is not a remarkable disaster. What makes it a remarkable disaster are the economic, social and political fallout. Let me start with the economy.

The key effect of COVID has been the economic devastation of lockdowns

Niall Ferguson sees the economic impact of the COVID shutdown as comparable to the fight against World War II. Or World War III: “If all you knew about the United States of America was the debt-to-GDP ratio and the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, you’d assume World War III broke out, maybe be in 2008 or 2009, and was still raging with no end in sight. It was only during World War II that US federal debt in government hands relative to gross domestic product exploded as strongly as in the years following the global financial crisis. [of 2008]. “

The reason the economic impact was so severe this time around, he noted, is that in 1918 and 1957 the government did not have the ability to lock people up in their homes because in 1957 , hardly anyone could work or learn from home. Instead, the Eisenhower administration focused on finding a vaccine as soon as possible (which it did).

Disasters have a human element and that includes poor decision making

Ferguson’s main topic was the poor decision-making that constitutes the human contribution to a disaster. Even a volcanic eruption is, in a sense, a man-made disaster: “If you built a big bloody city at the foot of the volcano, then rebuild it after the eruption, which of course is something that happens. in many parts of the world… “

A number of cities around the world are built near active volcanoes, including Hilo, Hawaii, at the base of the active volcano Mauna Loa.
We are told that the lava flow is slow enough for the inhabitants to escape, in the event of an eruption …

He added: “A critical and controversial part of the book was the argument that it was far too easy last year to blame the political mistakes that led to excess mortality on a few populist leaders. And I won’t waste time naming them.

One of the reasons Ferguson thinks we misunderstand the nature of the human element is because we blame the guy at the top when real failures are often lower:

I argue in the book that it is a common failure of analysis to put the blame on the person at the top. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, an event many of you will recall seeing on TV, there was a first attempt by the Washington post and the usual suspects to blame Ronald Reagan. Because that’s what the press does. They tried to argue that the shuttle launch was rushed so Reagan could mention it in a speech.

But a great scientist, Richard Feynman, has shown that this is not at all true. That in fact, NASA engineers had always known that there was a one in a hundred chance the thing would explode because of leaking fuel tanks. They also knew it was more likely to explode in cold weather than in hot weather, as the legendary O-rings would shrink in cold weather and make fuel leakage more likely.

Why was this probability of one hundred not better known? Because the NASA bureaucrats hid from the people funding the program that this is what the engineers thought. NASA bureaucrats, including the enigmatic Mr. Kingsberry, made it a one in a hundred thousand chance that the thing would explode, which is really quite a different risk.

I want to make the point, as I did in the book, that we had our own “Mr. Kingsberry.” The real cause of excess mortality in the United States last year was a terrible failure by the public health bureaucracy who had a 36-page pandemic preparedness plan. I read it; looks good on paper. The United States was ranked as the number one country in the world for pandemic preparedness in 2019.

But the people who were responsible for the planning, including Robert Cadillac, the assistant secretary of preparation – who had this one job – knew the plan was worthless.

Anyway, no one was listening. Meanwhile, China’s neighboring countries – South Korea and Taiwan – have controlled the outbreak much better through rapid testing, contact tracing and quarantining those affected.

“This is why only 12 people died from COVID in Taiwan in 2020,” Ferguson told the audience, “We completely failed to do all of this, completely failed. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control managed to prevent any other agency, public or private, to produce tests, and then have produced their own test kit.

He concluded by noting that one of the results of the abnormal social situation created by any pandemic is social unrest: “Often in times of plague or other types of disaster you get big waves of protests, sometimes in times of disaster. religious character, sometimes secular political character. character, ”an apparent reference to the riots in 2020’s“ Summer of Love ”.


You can also read: Explosive new information on massive COVID deaths in New York City. During a video conference, perhaps accidentally, a health official exposed the deadly policy and the reasoning behind it. Fearing a political setback, New York officials have taken steps to hide from the federal government the policy that sentenced thousands of seniors. (Michael Egnor)


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