The new book from economic historian Adam Tooze, “Shutdown: How COVID Shook the World's Economy,” takes his career-long concentration on finance in history and brings it right to the doorstep of the present day: instead of studying the economics of Nazi Germany or the international markets in the wake of World War I, he here looks at the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the interlocking intricacies of the world economy.
It's the narrowest focus of any of his books, and he stresses that remarkable compression of events.
“Between Xi Jinping's public acknowledgment of the coronavirus outbreak on January 20, 2020, and Joseph Biden's inauguration as the 46th president of the United States precisely a year later on January 20, 2021, the world was shaken by a disease that in the space of twelve months killed more than 2.2 million people and rendered tens of millions severely ill,” he writes. “The danger it posed disrupted the daily routine of virtually everyone on the planet, stopped much of public life, closed schools, separated families, interrupted travel both within and between countries, and upended the world economy.”
This is the heart of the narrative difference between “Shutdown” and Tooze's earlier books: not a single reader will come to this book uninformed. Everyone has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since millions of those people unexpectedly found themselves in lockdown with one main subject on their mind, many of Tooze's readers have followed the financial shockwaves that ran around the world as one economy after another suddenly needed to warn all their workers to stay at home.
Tooze's speciality is to compress a vast amount of arcane financial information into crystalline, even compelling prose, and his skills are on full display in “Shutdown,” despite the book's inherent limitations. Just as in Lawrence Wright's recent book “The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID,” so too here: a full history isn't possible because the events haven't finished happening yet. Faced with the worst pandemic health crisis in a century, countries and financial institutions scrambled for the better part of a year to shore up their markets and support their populations. That scramble continues today, and the long-term knock-on effects likely won't be known for a decade or more.
Tooze focuses on the basis of the world economy: “American government debts are the safe assets on which the entire structure of private finance rests,” he writes when discussing the tremor that ran through the US Treasuries in March of 2020. “They are the foundation of America's financial might and thus the world order as we know it.”
The two most alarming takeaways of the book flow naturally from such facts: just how jury-rigged the world's financial systems were before the pandemic struck, and, by extension, how thin a wire we're all walking as markets continue to work their way through both the enormous destruction of wealth and also the threat of viral variants. We can only hope that when the dust settles, we've learned something.