Given the fact that it’s one of the biggest historical events since the Second World War, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a natural lure to historians. In the months since this novel coronavirus escaped from first Wuhan and then mainland China, three million people have died of the virus, whole economies have cratered, and whole swaths of social norms have changed beyond recognition, perhaps forever. Even though historians are generally very wary of assessing events that are still unfolding, it’s inevitable that they’d be intrigued by something with the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve all lived through.
In other words, despite professional caution, there’ll be a tsunami of COVID books in the next two years. Some have already appeared, from prognostications like Fareed Zakaria’s “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” to preliminary summaries like Abhishek Bhagat’s “COVID-19 The Pandemic.” More—dozens, perhaps hundreds—are certainly on the way.
Case in point: “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe” by Harvard professor and best-selling historian Niall Ferguson.
Ferguson specializes in big, sweeping studies that tend to stand on well-worded generalities, and “Doom” is no exception, which is partly a problem. Since COVID-19 is still happening, it doesn’t lend itself to generalizations fueled by the hindsight that’s the historian’s stock-in-trade. Ferguson can’t talk about how the world’s governments reacted to the pandemic, because they’re still in the process of reacting to it. He can’t examine policy changes or shifts in international thinking, because those changes are still happening, or yet to happen. And simply retailing COVID’s brief history will hardly get a book to the 500-page mark.
This leaves Ferguson with one likely strategy: pad. He does this by looking to the past and filling his book with broad observations about the nature of catastrophes and the ways people and governments react to them—and sometimes precipitate them. “Doom” has its immediate genesis in the calamitous year of 2020 with its superstorms and wildfires and earthquakes and its signature pandemic—but even so, Ferguson ranges far afield in order to dedicate the broadest possible canvas to the question of how humans react to major problems.
At the heart of his thinking on the subject is psychologist James Reston’s concept of “active” and “latent” error—the first being what’s commonly known as “human error,” when an individual screws up where they might otherwise not have screwed up, and the second being when the errors are baked into a flawed system and can’t be avoided forever. Analyzing a series of catastrophes along these two lines (sometimes with a weirdly disrespectful flippancy; one section about air traffic disasters is titled “Airplane!” after a comedy film from 1980), Ferguson relates all the expected familiar stories, from the long slog of the First World War to the Chernobyl disaster. And although he dramatizes several instances of “active” errors, the book’s main focus is on “latent” errors, which accumulate in Ferguson’s view into “bureaucratic sclerosis,” a stolid institutional inertia that can defeat the fast, focused responses most catastrophes like COVID-19 require.
Part of the problem with the whole concept of bureaucratic necrosis is simple: it doesn’t apply to the COVID-19 pandemic as closely as Ferguson would clearly like it to. When inquiring into the many initial failures of the US government in dealing with the pandemic, he cites fumbling and cross-messaging in the leadership of the CDC and the NIH—and he does this at least in part specifically to shift some of the blame for those failures to those agencies and away from Donald Trump. But apart from the simple Harry Truman reality of “the buck stops here,” there’s also the well-documented fact that the Trump administration actively interfered with the government’s health agencies in order to suppress information it saw as somehow unflattering to Trump personally, in order to falsify reports, and, ultimately, in order to lie to the American people about the severity of the threat. In the United States in 2020, the mishandling of COVID-19 wasn’t the failure of an institution—it was the intentional strategy of one man.
In this sense it makes a poor parallel with many of the events Ferguson narrates, but not all of them. Perhaps the best-known of those events, for instance, is the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, in which the luxury liner famously struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of more than 1500 people. Ferguson cites the lack of drills and lifeboats, but the hard reality of the tragedy is far more akin to 2020 than he’d like to admit: Captain Smith had ample warnings about the dangerous ice fields into which he was steaming at full speed - and through a combination of arrogance and stupidity, he chose to ignore those warnings.
Of course, when reading a popular and influential historian like Ferguson, someone who’s regularly invited onto cable news programs to talk about current events, readers have to expect a certain amount of ideological drum-beating. Ferguson is a very engaging writer despite his tendency in these pages to indulge in some empty rhetoric. The chapter titled “The Economic Consequences of the Plague” is the strongest in the book, firmly in Ferguson’s economically-centered strong zone.
Unfortunately, the book too often loses that focus and indulges in bland cliches. “Much that lies ahead will follow the ancient, perennial rules of human history,” Ferguson writes at one point, showing palpable boredom with the craft of history itself. “An incumbent power will feel menaced by a rising power. A demagogue will feel frustrated by the constraints of a constitution. Power will corrupt, and absolute power will corrupt absolutely.”
As noted, the pandemic will provoke a great wash of historical studies done from all angles. Readers will have to hope that some of those books will try a little harder than “stuff happens.”
Penguin Press, 2021