Particularly interesting is Ferguson’s analysis of how information is suppressed, especially with regard to how Taiwan confronted both the pandemic and the infodemic. When bombarded by Chinese propaganda, the Taiwanese produced their own viral content ruthlessly mocking it. They managed to avoid lockdowns by contact tracing, rapid testing, and empowering the public to gather and share information. “Our approach, on both accounts, has been dreadfully lacking,” Ferguson told me. “We completely bungled the early part of the pandemic and ended up copying the PRC with lockdowns. We didn’t pay any attention to what Taiwan was doing, partly because the WHO refused to admit that Taiwan existed.” At the time of the book’s writing—October 22, 2020—Taiwan had seven COVID deaths, and New York had tallied 33,523.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press: 2021), 496 pages.
It is characteristic for conservative historian Niall Ferguson to have produced an exceptional history during a pandemic. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is a sweeping chronicle of global disasters large and small from the dawn of recorded history to the end of 2020; a detailed account not only of previous pandemics, but an embryonic analysis of the moment we are currently living through and “a diary of the plague half year.” For those seeking to ground themselves in historical context after the topsy-turvy events of the past year, Ferguson’s latest offering will prove invaluable.
Doom, Ferguson told me in an interview, is his attempt to induce us to self-awareness with regard to how we think about disasters. “I really would love to get people to think differently about things like disaster preparedness,” he said. “If I believe in anything it’s that history is a policy tool as well as a source of intellectual diversion, and although I don’t expect policymakers to read this book, there is a category of person whose job it is to read books for the policymakers and I honestly think this is an important book for those who have to think about disasters in any domain of public policy.”
Ferguson begins, appropriately enough, with the inevitability facing all of us: death. As death in the West has become increasingly contained to sterile medical institutions, we face more fearfully the reality of mortality. Ferguson refers to religion as “magical thinking,” but it is significant and largely unremarked on that we no longer possess the collective metaphysical frameworks that once served to contextualize catastrophe. Not only is public faith in government receding; increasingly, the public itself has no faith to speak of. Conspiracy theories flourish in populations where everyone seeks to create their own truth; the internet has created an infinite number of tailor-made narrative possibilities.
Ferguson also details, with extensive and dismal data, how terrible humans are at thinking about disasters. He accounts for and debunks the best theories of cyclical history, noting that catastrophes are often unpredictable and abnormally distributed, ensuring that retroactively applied theories inevitably fail in the particulars. His recounting of the history of Cassandras—or as the faithful would call them, prophets—is particularly depressing. The tragic figures who tried and failed to warn people of impending doom are a testament to the obstinacy and perpetually unwarranted optimism of human nature. No sooner has a volcano erupted or an earthquake struck, and people are rebuilding in its shadow or on a fault line.
But as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Ferguson details previous pandemic health measures: non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, quarantines, and travel restrictions have been utilized since time immemorial to reduce disease transmission. (Incidentally, the much-maligned Old Testament has quite a bit to say about quarantines as containment for contagions.) Our responses to these allegedly unprecedented times are also in many cases startlingly identical to those in previous disasters. Daniel Defoe records the crackpot theories conjured up during the bubonic plague; during the Spanish Flu, which killed 675,000 Americans, mandatory health measures gave rise to organizations such as the Anti-Mask League. In 1630, Urban II even excommunicated the Florentine sanitary commission for banning religious processions during the plague.