Doom: Niall Ferguson On The Politics And Policies Of The Pandemic

 

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, his new book on the decisions made by governments and public health officials around the world during the COVID pandemic. In this wide-ranging discussion, Ferguson describes what governments and leaders got right and got wrong—very wrong—over the 15 months since the coronavirus spread from China. Were the lockdowns instituted around the world prudent and life saving, or did they cause more damage by crippling economies and creating massive unemployment and enormous government debt across the globe? How can vaccines be created and distributed faster and more efficiently than this one? Finally, what lessons can we learn from this pandemic that can be applied to or even prevent the next one? Yes, Niall is certain there will be another one.

Recorded on April 28, 2021

Published in General
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  1. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Interesting interview. Thank you.

    • #1
  2. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I’m about halfway through with the book. The interview was much more informative than the book has been, frankly. It’s a book stuffed with information, but there’s not been any piecing things together – at least so far. And this pieced things together. Thanks.

    • #2
  3. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    Always enjoy hearing from Professor Ferguson. I think his critiques of the COVID actions are pretty spot on. Obviously hindsight is 20/20 but (1) going the lock down route that the CCP took was a big mistake in free societies; (2) the CDC, etc not admitting that they didn’t know everything but this is a serious virus so these are the precautions right now; (3) unfortunately, having to depend on the CDC, etc as bureaucracies to be able to move fast, for instance on testing. Looking forward to the flag ship podcast.

    • #3
  4. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Some of what Mr. Ferguson describes in the interview was true at some point in hectic 2020, but the situation in Massachusetts never stayed that way for long. Massachusetts had the third-highest death toll in the country, right after New York State and New Jersey. What happened here was pretty significant, and it does not match Mr. Ferguson’s description of events at all. Some of the things he pointed to about the entire United States were true at some point along the way in Massachusetts as well. But it didn’t stay that way here for long, and all of the steps he thought our country should have taken to slow down the pandemic we did take here at some point.

    I am very proud of the response of the Boston universities and hospitals and state government. The city rolled up its sleeves and got to work. And brilliantly. One of Governor Baker’s dearest friends and chief advisors for the pandemic was the former president of Dartmouth Jim Yong Kim, who once upon a time actually wrote the South Korea response plan. :-) It was strange to hear Mr. Ferguson talk about South Korea’s “success” without mentioning Jim Yong Kim. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that South Korea had a milder variant than Boston. I also think the jury is still out on which measures South Korea took that actually slowed down the pandemic there.

    Boston did ramp up testing, initiate contact tracing, and implement a self-quarantine program as soon as we could. Was it effective? Hard to say. We have the third highest death toll in the country. Might it have been even worse without the steps our state and local governments took? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We’re still trying to figure that out and will be for many years to come.

    We’re also still conducting research to try to establish how upper respiratory viruses like this one spread within communities. No one really knew when this started, and Charlie Baker and Mass General and Beth Israel have instituted some invaluable studies to address this very question going forward. MIT created the instant test that people are using today, and they also instituted a sewage-study program to track the infection as it moved through the 43 communities that make up the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. In other words, it has been a year of very hard and productive work in this state.

    Our biggest problem was the ridiculous delay in getting viable tests. However, in defense of the CDC, the first tests they produced were too sensitive and were picking up lots of viruses. That’s partly a function of the buggy year it was. The sheer number of active upper respiratory bugs in circulation when this started was surprising, and it was probably a result of the very warm year we were having. No, not global warming, just extra warm.

    [continued in comment 5]

    • #4
  5. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    [continued from comment 4]

    Of all the positive steps Donald Trump took to address the pandemic, the most important was probably his releasing private labs from the regulation that the CDC could be the only lab to make and run these tests. This single action by President Trump enabled faster and more accurate testing in far greater numbers than the CDC was able to manage, and it may have saved millions of lives.

    At no time did Donald Trump ever try to make the pandemic about him. I don’t know where Mr. Ferguson got that idea, but it is false.

    I admire Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and I am really grateful that he left local control to local government. He did not try to usurp states’ or cities’ and towns’ authority. He could have done so. He made the intelligent choice not to. That meant that the fifty states could experiment with responding to a quickly evolving situation. Now we have the statistics and stories from all fifty states to learn from going forward.

    Listening to Ferguson describe our supposed failings in the United States made me think that he must have taken a news-media snapshot at some point a year ago and then retreated to a study somewhere to write his book. To omit Boston’s many achievements over the past two years from that snapshot is an egregious oversight.

    I don’t want to be ungracious to Peter Robinson’s guest, but I don’t think Mr. Ferguson has much more purpose in writing this book than to try to say (a) we failed and (b) it was all Trump’s fault that we failed. I do not agree with view at all.

    • #5
  6. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Some of what Mr. Ferguson describes in the interview was true at some point in hectic 2020, but the situation in Massachusetts never stayed that way for long. Massachusetts had the third-highest death toll in the country, right after New York State and New Jersey. What happened here was pretty significant, and it does not match Mr. Ferguson’s description of events at all. Some of the things he pointed to about the entire United States were true at some point along the way in Massachusetts as well. But it didn’t stay that way here for long, and all of the steps he thought our country should have taken to slow down the pandemic we did take here at some point.

    I am very proud of the response of the Boston universities and hospitals and state government. The city rolled up its sleeves and got to work. And brilliantly. One of Governor Baker’s dearest friends and chief advisors for the pandemic was the former president of Dartmouth Jim Yong Kim, who once upon a time actually wrote the South Korea response plan. :-) It was strange to hear Mr. Ferguson talk about South Korea’s “success” without mentioning Jim Yong Kim. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that South Korea had a milder variant than Boston. I also think the jury is still out on which measures South Korea took that actually slowed down the pandemic there.

    Boston did ramp up testing, initiate contact tracing, and implement a self-quarantine program as soon as we could. Was it effective? Hard to say. We have the third highest death toll in the country. Might it have been even worse without the steps our state and local governments took? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We’re still trying to figure that out and will be for many years to come.

    We’re also still conducting research to try to establish how upper respiratory viruses like this one spread within communities. No one really knew when this started, and Charlie Baker and Mass General and Beth Israel have instituted some invaluable studies to address this very question going forward. MIT created the instant test that people are using today, and they also instituted a sewage-study program to track the infection as it moved through the 43 communities that make up the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. In other words, it has been a year of very hard and productive work in this state.

    Our biggest problem was the ridiculous delay in getting viable tests. However, in defense of the CDC, the first tests they produced were too sensitive and were picking up lots of viruses. That’s partly a function of the buggy year it was. The sheer number of active upper respiratory bugs in circulation when this started was surprising, and it was probably a result of the very warm year we were having. No, not global warming, just extra warm.

    [continued in comment 5]

    When I looked at the numbers for NY, NJ, and MA last summer, the curves were identical even down to the date of peaks.  The curve shape was also identical to Sweden.  I don’t think any of the NPIs anywhere had much effect.  Once the bug is already out and its preferred conditions are right (a) it is probably too late to meaningfully stop the spread and (b) the incidence is going to drop on its own at a predictable rate as conditions and quality/quantity of infectable targets change.  Post hoc attributions to NPIs are common but probably wrong. (Like Fauci on July 7 attributing the backside of the NY curve to the diligent application of his brilliant advice.)

    An in the other direction, not much forces the bug to do more than it was gonna do. The Sturgis bike rally happened in August when COVID was off-season and way down in the Dakotas and MN and not even that compact gathering of 460,000 unmasked drinkers could force an upward COVID blip anywhere in that entire region.  COVID has its own rhythm like every other respiratory pandemic.

    Yeah well, maybe there could have been lots more cases if we had not done X. Somebody is going to have to come up with a really good explanation for the mechanics of transmission before we can figure out what might have worked.  In the meantime, I need to see some change in the curve somewhere before I believe such claims.  Clearly, the damn bug likes closed spaces and can persist in much smaller particles than the silly sneeze and cough micro-loogie modeling suggested.  I also would like to know how/where dormancy occurs.  COVID-19 was in the US as early as late fall according to several studies of saved blood samples.  Why did it wait to blow up in the following spring and not in the prior flu season?  Where was it?

    Ferguson appears to be oblivious to the fact that Asian incidence was always going to be vastly lower as one of the benefits of proximity to the COVID motherland and long-term acquired resistance as a result.  Even after it broke out in S. Korea, the spread was 10x less than here. India, Vietnam, Thailand, etc all also have vastly lower incidence (yes, India–rates per million for cases and deaths are more than 20X lower than MA).  Even allowing for disparate testing rates, it is still huge.  I read one asinine paper that attributed that difference to greater mask use which raises the question as to why something that supposedly offers a tenfold level of protection over there accomplished squadoosh when mandated here.

    • #6
  7. Boney Cole Member
    Boney Cole
    @BoneyCole

    I keep referring everyone to the Delingpole podcast where he interviewed a former Pfizer Vice-president.  The man basically said this is an experimental substance, it should be acknowledged as such, and used as such.  In his view, only people with significant risk should take it, and no one should be pressured to take it.  Also, it should be denied to no one.  In my personal view, no woman who wants to have children in the future should be pressured  take it.  The trials that are used in regular drug development won’t be finished until 2023 I think.  This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable approach.  It seems to be the approach that Naomi Wolfe is taking, after listening to an interview with her. 

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    When I looked at the numbers for NY, NJ, and MA last summer, the curves were identical even down to the date of peaks.  The curve shape was also identical to Sweden.  I don’t think any of the NPIs anywhere had much effect.  Once the bug is already out and its preferred conditions are right (a) it is probably too late to meaningfully stop the spread and (b) the incidence is going to drop on its own at a predictable rate as conditions and quality/quantity of infectable targets change.  Post hoc attributions to NPIs are common but probably wrong.

    I believe this will turn out to be true. I agree. 

    But we (or more likely an army of unfortunate grad students :-) ) won’t know for a while. I think Boston did a great job in amassing a lot of critical data. 

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    An in the other direction, not much forces the bug to do more than it was gonna do. The Sturgis bike rally happened in August when COVID was off-season and way down in the Dakotas and MN and not even that compact gathering of 460,000 unmasked drinkers could force an upward COVID blip anywhere in that entire region.  COVID has its own rhythm like every other respiratory pandemic.

    I agree with this too. In March 2020, when all the universities and colleges sent all their students home in one fell swoop, I expected there to be a big bump in new cases nationwide. There was not.

    Which led me to believe that the Diamond Princess testing that revealed that only 20 percent of a random population is actually susceptible to this virus was an accurate finding.

    I suspect that an attenuated SARS 1 made the rounds twenty years ago, people chalked it up to a mild cold, and immunity spread.

    Just as is true of all upper respiratory diseases, the variables of (a) weather and (b) population density are hugely influential with how it goes and are difficult to calculate, although we may have enough data to do so now.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    Yeah well, maybe there could have been lots more cases if we had not done X. Somebody is going to have to come up with a really good explanation for the mechanics of transmission before we can figure out what might have worked. 

    This is where the researchers around the globe but especially in research-centric Boston will come into play. I’m really pleased that we were able to capture as much data during the course of this storm as we did. 

    I’m really proud of the calm workmanlike response Boston took to this pandemic. A lot of hard work has happened here that will pay off as time goes on. 

    • #10
  11. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    COVID-19 was in the US as early as late fall according to several studies of saved blood samples.  Why did it wait to blow up in the following spring and not in the prior flu season?  Where was it?

    I’ve known all along that it started in I believe late October in China but definitely in early November. I was really alarmed about at Thanksgiving that year because of the high number of Chinese foreign national students we host here, and in Boston particularly.

    I don’t understand where the later date ever came from. Anyone who was reading the Wall Street Journal knew that it started earlier than others have said since.

    The spread of gossip needs to be studied as well as the spread of viruses. :-)

    I think nearly all of the “flu” cases we saw in December and January through March were covid-19. This bug overpowers or makes the gut inhospitable to this coronavirus somehow. (And someday, and please remember that yours truly guessed this on her own :-) ), we may find out that the covid-19 virus was being designed for exactly that purpose. We had just come out of two very bad years for the flu.

    Later tests said that they were picking flu in the covid-19 positive tests. That tells me that the flu was here but covid-19 was somehow stronger in terms of triggering an immune system response. Eventually it might wipe out of the flu if it hasn’t already.

    • #11
  12. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    Ferguson appears to be oblivious to the fact that Asian incidence was always going to be vastly lower as one of the benefits of proximity to the COVID motherland and long-term acquired resistance as a result.  Even after it broke out in S. Korea, the spread was 10x less than here. India, Vietnam, Thailand, etc all also have vastly lower incidence (yes, India–rates per million for cases and deaths are more than 20X lower than MA).  Even allowing for disparate testing rates, it is still huge. 

    That’s incredible. I did not know that. 

    Humidity? That’s what the Chinese speculated caused Wuhan to have an explosion of cases while neighboring Vietnam had none. But I don’t know if that turned out to be true. 

    But it also raises the question of existing immunity. A European epidemiologist said early on that there were about twenty similar coronaviruses in play and they had been around for years. He speculated that having immunity to one might be enough to have immunity to the rest of them. It’s very possible. In fact probable, given the Diamond Princess test results.  

     

    • #12