Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, £25

Review by Iain Macwhirter

“I got the Rockin’ Pneumonia on the Boogie Woogie Flu.” That was a popular song by Hughie “piano” Smith that charted in August 1957. The flu in question was the Asian flu epidemic that hit America and Britain in 1957/8. It killed 1.1 million people worldwide and 116,000 in America alone. Hard to imagine anyone writing a novelty song about coronavirus. Imagine the reaction on Twitter.

Perhaps we were made of harder stuff back in the day. Or maybe governments just coped with crises better in the 20th century. They had plenty of practice with two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and pandemics of TB and Diphtheria as well as Spanish Flu. This at any rate is the view of the historian, Niall Ferguson, who wants to know why governments in Britain and America performed so badly this time round.

With our vast epidemiological knowledge, massive budgets, immense man and woman power why were we so unprepared? Left scrabbling around for basic PPE, such as face masks and gowns. Why was track and trace a £39bn disaster? Why did we persuade ourselves that this coronavirus was just another flu, and not learn from the SARS and MERS epidemics in South East Asia?

Even popular culture had been ahead of the pandemic curve. The 2011 film Contagion was almost a resume of Covid-19, right down to things like R numbers and the malign role of social media in spreading fake news.

Some say racism is to blame for our epidemiological myopia. But that doesn't really make sense. Governments weren't just not listening to non-white Asian countries, they were not listening to their own white advisers – legions of them. In the US, there had been advanced pandemic planning since 2006, when Congress passed a Pandemic Preparedness Act. It culminated in the 2018 National Biodefence Strategy. In Britain, Exercise Cygnus, in 2016, simulated a pandemic and warned that the NHS would not cope.

For Ferguson it's personal. He says he warned about the nature of the pandemic back on January 26, 2020, when the World Health Organisation was still insisting there was no evidence of human-to-human spread. He came down with what was almost certainly a version of Covid-19 himself. Why, he asks, was a historian able to see what was coming better than the Government and public health bureaucracies?

Covid-19 was not a “black swan” event – something unexpected that caught us unawares. It was what Ferguson calls a “grey rhino”: something dangerous we knew about, could see coming towards us, and yet we still did nothing about. Ferguson has no time for Donald Trump, a bull in a china shop, and rightly accuses him of complacency, confusion and wilful ignorance. But he also says that reducing it to personalities is too easy.

Ferguson blames top-heavy, hierarchical administrative bureaucracies for the failure to avoid the rhino. It was what he variously calls “bureaucratic sclerosis” “vetocracy”, “kludgocracy” – a state apparatus that is too big not to fail. No-one knows who's in charge in these faceless corridors, where internal processes and rivalries assume more importance than delivery.

I'm sure that bureaucracy is a necessary part of the explanation, but I don't believe it is sufficient, and I don't think it exonerates politicians. Our political class, faced with a voracious 24-hour news cycle, have become preoccupied with short-term popularity and media fire-fighting. They seem incapable of taking a strategic view on anything, whether it be geopolitics, the economy or public health. The media shares the blame for the deracination of politics and governance.

Ferguson is a conservative historian, but Doom is not some Daily Telegraph fulmination against the “woke”, though he clearly believes the bureaucratic preoccupation with diversity training and racial awareness doesn't help. This book is an erudite and readable history of disasters, natural and man-made. Mostly they are the latter. It is full of insights into the way society has approached catastrophe and loss throughout history. He speculates on future disasters – nano-technology, genetic engineering and cyberattacks look likely candidates – but insists it'll be something we don’t expect.

However, Doom will be judged largely on its assessment of the present catastrophe – Covid-19. And here Ferguson falls down by being too quick off the mark. It was written in August/September 2020, and a lot has happened since then, including the second wave. In this edition at least, Ferguson misses the one thing that arguably makes this pandemic unlike previous ones – vaccines: the achievement within 10 months of a biomedical breakthrough that might normally have taken 10 years.

And here we must give some grudging credit to the politicians. Boris Johnson set up the Vaccines Task Force (VTF) under the entrepreneur, Kate Bingham. Despite profound scepticism from the press and opposition politicians, it delivered. Not only did Bingham have the freedom and resources to finance research into vaccines, she also invested public money in setting up the manufacturing capacity and supply chains, long before anyone knew whether the vaccines would work. There is a book to be written about this alone.

Vaccine rollout doesn't excuse the early errors, or Boris Johnson's lamentable bumbling over lockdowns. But VTF was a remarkable exercise in purposeful risk-taking, and public-private cooperation. The European Union, by contrast, got caught up in bureaucratic inertia and incompetent procurement with disastrous results.

And not only did our much-maligned politicians get something right, our supposedly bureaucratic NHS proved truly world-beating. With very limited resources it not only coped with the pandemic casualties, it organised the efficient delivery of millions vaccines in record time. To see what might have happened, regard India: a world leader in vaccine manufacturing, which is experiencing a public health nightmare.

Doom is a fascinating taxonomy of disaster, and rightly takes governments to task for bureaucratic delay. But it lacks proper consideration of the most important dimension to the Covid-19 story. Perhaps the lesson is that historians should stick to history and not leap into print until the fat lady, or politician, has sung.

Aye Write Online event: Niall Ferguson will be talking about his new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe on Saturday 15th May, 8.30pm. All-access Festival Passes (£50), Individual Tickets (£5) available at