Back to top

Lessons of History for a Post-COVID America


Published May 18, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic spread like wildfire and left devastation in its wake. While disasters are inherently hard to predict, there are lessons we should learn from the worldwide response to the coronavirus. Niall Ferguson talks about how to handle the next crisis better and avoid future catastrophes.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do we better manage future pandemics?
  2. What’s the most important lesson we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Additional Resources:

  • Read Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. Available here.
  • Niall Ferguson discusses his new book and the decisions made by governments and public health officials around the world during the COVID pandemic. Available here.
  • Listen as Niall Ferguson takes a historical look at past disasters and their aftermaths. Available here.
View Transcript

The plague of 2020-21 is not yet over, but in many parts of America, including here in California, it feels like the beginning of the end. Or is this just the end of the beginning, to paraphrase Winston Churchill in 1942?

The worst pandemics, along with the biggest wars, are history’s most devastating disasters. But we need to get this disaster into perspective. Covid-19 has to date killed 0.04% of the world's population, making it roughly three orders of magnitude smaller than the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the 14th century. The 1918-19 influenza was more than 40 times worse than our plague, which has only just overtaken the 1957-58 Asian Flu.

But just as World War II was far from over in 1942, so Covid-19 is not yet done with us. More than three million deaths have been attributed worldwide to the coronavirus. But, as new and more transmissible and in some cases more lethal variants of the virus sweep through some of the world’s most populous countries, notably Brazil and India, the death toll is certain to rise further. Epidemiologists project a total of 4.7 million lives lost by the end of July. More than half a million Americans have died as a result of Covid to date, but it could be 618,000 by August.

The vaccines—which scientists developed and pharmaceutical companies produced with astonishing speed—work. Yet, if a significant proportion of the population in developed countries won’t get vaccinated, while millions in the developing world simply can’t get vaccinated, leaving the virus with opportunities to mutate further, we may never get the world to “herd immunity.”

In writing about Covid as part of a general history of disasters, I’ve been struck by four misconceptions that seem very tenacious.

One is that we had no alternative but to lock down large parts of social and economic life to contain the virus’s spread and prevent our healthcare system being swamped. The second is that we didn’t need to that and could just have carried on regardless.  

The third is that the pandemic’s severity was the fault of President Donald Trump. The fourth is that the pandemic was unfairly exploited by his political enemies to prevent his re-election.

Unusually, all of these opposing views are wrong.

There was an alternative to lockdowns. But it wasn’t letting the virus run wild, which might easily have led to a million American deaths. It was acting early to ramp up testing, contact-tracing and isolating those suspected of being infected. Taiwan did that, despite being right next to China, where this disaster began. So did South Korea. Their death tolls have been trivial by comparison with ours: 1800 in South Korea, just 11 in Taiwan. And neither country had to resort to lockdowns to contain the pandemic.

The fact that we failed to do this cannot entirely be blamed on Donald Trump, though he certainly made his mistakes. It was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that messed up testing. It was the big tech companies that opted not to prioritize contact tracing. And a number of Democrat-controlled state governments, including New York and California, did a remarkably bad job of keeping the infected away from the vulnerable. Electing a new president hasn’t addressed these and other failures.

The danger in the wake of this disaster is that weary people, at a time of unrelenting partisan polarization, jump to the wrong conclusions. And, as we have seen in the past 12 months, bad ideas can be even more contagious than a dangerous virus.

The big lessons of my book Doom are that you rarely get the disaster you prepare for—and your preparations may fail even if that disaster does strike.

As I said, this pandemic isn’t yet over, but already we’re being told to focus our minds on the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming. I take that threat seriously. But there are other kinds of disaster that could strike much more swiftly—a major war with China, for example.

If there’s one thing we should learn from Taiwan and South Korea, it’s to prepare—and prepare meaningfully—for every eventuality, not just the one we think we see coming. At some point, we will succeed in defeating Covid-19. But as Henry Kissinger famously said, “Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem.”