Doom?

Many readers of this blog are familiar with Niall Ferguson. For those who are not, he is a historian who originally hails from Scotland, was educated at Oxford, a professor at Harvard, and now a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Ferguson has written many histories, among them The Ascent of Money, Civilization, and Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. The latter infuriated the British and American academic politburo for his thesis that British, and other European imperial colonization throughout the world was, on balance, a positive and a benefit to all, including the then indigenous people and their descendants.

Ferguson now has a new opus, to be released today, titled Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. The book is reported to chronicle catastrophic events and the human response to them throughout history, beginning with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. The most recent event of Ferguson’s interest is the current Covid-19 pandemic, which he discusses in part in “How a More Resilient America Beat a Midcentury Pandemic” published this past Saturday in the Wall Street Journal (May 1, 2021, Review Section).

Ferguson compares and contrasts Covid 19, not with the century old influenza pandemic of 1919 fashionable among observers today, but with an epidemic of “Asian” or “Hong Kong” flu in 1957. That disease became virulent in June of that year and infected a large number of persons throughout the country, interestingly, mostly young persons. The summer of that year was between my six and seventh grades, but I don’t recall anything about the pandemic. Here in Dallas, that was the year of a particularly destructive tornado. Also, the Soviet Union launched the first successful man-made satellite Sputnik.

Here are some of Ferguson’s observations and theories, with comment.

He believes the 1957-58 flu pandemic is important to be studied “not just because the public health threat was a closer match to our own but because American society at the time was better prepared—culturally, institutionally and politically—to deal with it.”

There is some reason to believe this statement about the better preparation is correct. He writes on:

“A striking contrast between 1957 and the present is that Americans today appear to have a much lower tolerance for risk than their grandparents and great-grandparents.” “… ‘there was nothing unusual about finding yourself threatened by contagious disease. Mumps, measles, chicken pox and German measles swept through entire schools and towns…’ “

That the United States was more culturally homogenous in the 1950s than today seems correct. The fact remains that it was mostly reflective of the values to those who had the most influence. Those who went through the Great Depression and won World War II had enormous regard. Whatever other values one might have had around then, the virtue of “suck it up and soldier on” through adversity was strong.

“Compare these stoical attitudes with the strange political bifurcation of reactions we saw last year, with Democrats embracing drastic restrictions on social and economic activity, while many Republicans acted as if the virus was a hoax. Perhaps a society with a stronger fabric of family life, community life and church life was better equipped to withstand the anguish of untimely deaths than a society that has, in so many ways, come apart.”

Accordingly,“[t]he policy response of President Dwight Eisenhower could hardly have been more different from the response of 2020. Eisenhower did not declare a state of emergency. There were no state lockdowns and, despite the first wave of teenage illness, no school closures. Sick students simply stayed at home, as they usually did. Work continued more or less uninterrupted.”

Of course, the ever popular Eisenhower had just won a second term as President, rather than facing an election that had most of the current power structure of the nation hell-bent on removing him. Also, Ike had been a soldier in two wars and was well aware of personal hardship and the capacity of Americans to bear it.

“A further contrast between 1957 and 2020 is that the competence of government would appear to have diminished even as its size has expanded.”

Vaccines for the 1957 Asian flu were developed and distributed within four months.

Ferguson has that right. In the number of government employees, federal, state and local, its size has increased three-fold. There is little question that the cost of development of new pharmaceuticals is significantly increased by the sclerotic approval process of the FDA and other agencies. Safety and effectiveness of drugs are important, but so much bureaucratic posturing and turf-protection slows down the production of new medicines. If Trump did anything right in response to the pandemic, using the his executive power to fast-track vaccine development heads the list.

Ferguson also discusses the important difference between 1957 and today in the communications structure in America and the rest of the world. He focuses mainly on the availability of technology that allowed virtual working from home. That, of course, was unavailable in 1957. There was no Internet, and 25% of the population did not even have land-line telephones. One went to the physical workplace or did not work at all. Consequently, although Ferguson points out that there was a mild recession that year, it was not a result of the flu pandemic. More to the point, the absence of a 24/7 news cycle from multiple outlets, smart phones, and social media that allows instant communication among millions, limited awareness of the pandemic by the general population in 1957. Today, tweets, emails, and text messages, often conveying incomplete, erroneous, and contradictory messages induced a certain cyber-hysteria among the population, especially younger persons, the group least at-risk.

Speaking of younger persons, Ferguson, beginning with an anonymous quote, says “‘To be young was very heaven’ in 1957—even with a serious risk of infectious disease (and not just flu; there was also polio and much else). By contrast, to be young in 2020 was—for most American teenagers—rather hellish. Stuck indoors, struggling to concentrate on ‘distance learning’ with irritable parents working from home in the next room, young
people experienced at best frustration and at worst mental illness.” The downstream effects of that phenomenon may not be pretty.

What also remains to be seen is a historical assessment as to whether the 2020-21 reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was excessive, or inadequate. Unfortunately that assessment, like most histories, will be made by the winners, and will be seen primarily through a partisan lens.

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