Everyone knows The Great Wave, the most famous of all Japanese works of art, even if they don’t know the name of the artist. His name was Hokusai and he published The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura) at some point between 1829 and 1833. It’s a woodblock print of the genre ukiyo-e, which translates, rather beautifully, as: “Picture of the floating world.”
Look closely at The Great Wave and you will see that it towers above the cowering oarsmen in three wooden fishing boats. They are on their way back to Kanagawa (now Yokohama). Mount Fuji is just visible in the distance. These days we are all a bit like those Japanese fishermen, cowering beneath a giant wave. The wave in question is the pandemic created by the virus Sars-CoV-2 and the deadly disease that it can cause, Covid-19.
For the past two months, ever since the epidemiologists persuaded the politicians to take the threat of Covid-19 more seriously than the usual winter wave of influenza, we have been captivated by wave-like images: graphs depicting the early, exponential growth of infections and deaths, and then the flattening of the curve as we practise social distancing and implement economic lockdowns.
These graphs were at first generated by the epidemiologists’ models. Now, however, we have the actual numbers of confirmed cases and deaths. They don’t perfectly fit the predicted curves — no model is perfect — but they roughly do.
In most of the worst-affected places in the developed world, such as New York, it now seems that the great wave has crested. In terms of new cases, hospitalisations, intubations and deaths, the peak is now behind us. For America as a whole, the great wave of new cases has clearly reached a plateau since the first week of April.
In the UK, too, it seems probable — making all the necessary adjustments for lags in the data — that April 8 was the peak of the wave in terms of mortality.
The situation is even more encouraging in a number of European countries, notably Austria, Denmark and Germany, which is why their citizens — unlike New Yorkers and Britons — can now look forward to a partial return to normality in a matter of days.
A number of American states are already moving in the same direction. In Montana, the beautiful and thinly populated state to which I retreated six weeks ago, churches will reopen for worship today and most retail businesses will be able to resume work tomorrow.
So is that it, then? The wave crested; most of us survived; now back to normality? These were the words of the US vice-president, Mike Pence, on Wednesday: “We truly do believe, as we move forward with responsibly beginning to reopen the economy in state after state around the country, that by early June, we could be at a place where this coronavirus epidemic is largely in the past. Americans are going to be able to enjoy a good summer.”
Hang on, not so fast.
In history, all the great pandemics have come in waves, including the Black Death of bubonic and pneumonic plague in the 14th century and smallpox in the 18th century. The first recorded plague outbreak — in Athens in the 5th century BC — had three waves: in 430BC, 429BC and 427 to 426BC.
In some cases, the second wave was worse than the first. Take the great influenza of 1918-19. The first official recorded outbreak was at a Kansas army base, Camp Funston, in March 1918. But the global peak of mortality was in the second wave of October and November. A third wave affected some areas of the world in early 1919, principally England and Wales and Australia.
The 1957-58 influenza pandemic hit Hong Kong in mid-April 1957. It reached America in June and produced a surge of deaths among teenagers that autumn. But there was a second wave in January-March 1958. There were further spikes of excess mortality in early 1960 and early 1963.
The main reason to expect a second wave of Covid-19 in 2020 is that we are nowhere near herd immunity anywhere. Even in New York state, the worst-affected part of North America, the infection rate is little higher than 21%, according to the most recent testing.
As lockdowns ease and people return to work and school, it is almost inconceivable that we won’t see rising infections, illnesses and deaths. Indeed, we are already seeing that in some parts of Asia, notably Singapore and northern China.
The only real debate is how far warmer weather is going to dampen the contagion in the northern hemisphere. I have read all the academic papers on this subject and remain unconvinced. We are learning that this virus spreads most rapidly indoors, in confined spaces such as subways, restaurants and hospitals. (Hence closing parks and beaches was pretty pointless and probably, on balance, harmful.) So it’s possible summer won’t radically reduce the infectiousness of the virus, unless we all move our desks outside.
Alternatively, if weather does matter, then the second wave may come in October, when the weather cools and when most schools and universities attempt to go back to normal.
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” said the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, in an interview last week. “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”
Now, just think of the political implications of that scenario. A second wave would be the death blow to the happy talk of a “V-shaped” economic recovery. And it would arrive just in time to discourage elderly voters — who lean Republican, remember — from going to vote.
A poll published last week showed the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, neck and neck with the US president, Donald Trump, in six key states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On three key issues — handling the pandemic, preventing another one and making healthcare more affordable — Biden narrowly leads Trump. And this after weeks when Biden has been more or less invisible, Trump ubiquitous.
We have all heard far too much in recent weeks about bending the curve, as if there were only one curve. In the history of pandemics, I am afraid to say, there are very few cases of “one and done”. The only questions that remain open are exactly when the second wave will come, how big it will be and if it will be followed by a third.
Look closely at Hokusai’s The Great Wave, which depicts not a tsunami but a so-called rogue wave. The artist is most certainly not implying that, after the great wave breaks, the sea will be a millpond.
Until we reach herd immunity or find and distribute a vaccine, the same will be true of Covid-19, alas.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle
In Liu Cixin’s extraordinary science- fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, China recklessly creates, then ingeniously solves, an existential threat to humanity. I remember thinking it was an odd plot when I read it last year. It is a Chinese scientist who reveals Earth’s location to the hostile planet Trisolaris, but it is another one who thwarts the Trisolaran invasion and saves the world.
This is not how sci-fi plots work in western literature. The bad guys (the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese or just the aliens) do bad stuff and then the good guys (they speak English) save the world. One of the many things I learnt from reading The Three-Body Problem is that, in this respect as in so many others, China is different. It’s OK for China to screw the world in order to save it.
The non-fictional threat to humanity we face today is not, of course, an alien invasion. The coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 does not come from outer space, though it shares with the Trisolarans an impulse to colonise us. The fact, however, is that the first case of Covid-19 was in China, just as the first messages to Trisolaris were sent from China.
You may, if you are gripped by our current decadent obsession with cultural inclusivity and sensitivity, not like the fact that Donald Trump called it “the Chinese virus”. But he is as entitled to call it that as people in 1968 were entitled to refer to the influenza A (H3N2) pandemic of that year as the “Hong Kong flu”, because Hong Kong was where the first case was recorded.
As in The Three-Body Problem, China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it. Liberally exporting testing kits (some of which don’t work) and face masks (most of which probably do, but I still got ours from Taiwan, thank you very much), the Chinese government is intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted.
Not only that, but the deputy director of the Chinese foreign ministry’s information department had the gall to endorse a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in America. On March 12, Zhao Lijian tweeted: “It might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Zhao also retweeted an article claiming that an American team might have brought the virus with it when it participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan in October.
The worst of it is that some people in the western world are so unhinged by Trump derangement syndrome, or so corrupted by Chinese money, or, in the case of Italy, so disillusioned by the less than altruistic responses of their fellow Europeans to their exceptionally severe Covid-19 outbreak, that they actually swallow this toxic stream of hypocrisy and mendacity. Was anything this year dumber than the mayor of Florence’s “Hug a Chinese” campaign in February?
For a flavour of the Chinese Communist Party’s line, just take a look at the headlines in last Friday’s China Daily: “Fighting Covid-19 the Chinese way”; “Chinese high-tech helps world combat pandemic”; “Nation uses tech prowess to help world fight virus”; “Stigmatising Beijing will not help Washington”; “US shirks responsibility with wild finger-pointing”. And my favourite: “Xi plants trees in Beijing, urging respect for nature.”
Respect for nature? Let us try to restore sanity with six questions that we should ask Xi Jinping the next time we Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangout or WeChat him.
First, what exactly was going in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of Sars-CoV-2? If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef) that your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.
Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between December 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on December 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until January 20?
Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?
January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us.
Fourth, what possessed your foreign ministry spokesman to start peddling an obviously false conspiracy theory on social media and why has he not been fired? Even your ambassador to America disowned this fake news. We’ll watch with interest to see which of these diplomats gets your backing.
Fifth, where exactly are the tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, to name just two of the Chinese citizens who seem to have vanished since they expressed criticism of your government’s handling of Covid-19?
Finally, how many of your people has this disease really killed?
Now, I don’t expect straight answers to these questions, any more than we got straight answers from the Soviet Communist Party after Chernobyl. But I do think we need to keep asking them, if only to vaccinate ourselves against the other kind of virus currently emanating from China — the disinformation that Xi has learnt, from his Russian pal Vladimir Putin, how to spread through the internet.
China has a problem. It is not The Three-Body Problem, a brilliant book that reminds us that the Chinese people are capable of great literature, just as Chinese researchers are capable of great science. The same was true of the Russian people under communism.
China’s problem, like Russia’s before 1991, is the “One Party Problem”. And as long as a fifth of humanity is subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organisation with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Most of us are not gamblers. We may have the occasional flutter on a famous horse race, but the stakes are always small. Most of the time we prefer not to risk our money, even when the odds are attractive. We prefer that boring form of inverted gambling known as insurance.
Year after year, each of us pays hundreds if not thousands of pounds in premiums to insurance companies. We do not think of it this way, but we are essentially betting that our houses will burn down, our cars will crash, our health will fail or our holidays will be cancelled. Insurers know that all these mishaps are predictably rare and take the bet. We lose our money, over and over again, but have “peace of mind”.
We who only gamble in such unsophisticated ways are fascinated by true gamblers: those who frequent not only casinos and stock markets, but also the pages of history. We normal folk tend to think of two types of gambler. There is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s compulsive gambler, who cannot resist the lure of the roulette wheel — who ruins himself by betting and betting, despite knowing that, in any gambling establishment, the house is more likely to win than not.
Then there is the gambler as master speculator: Charles Dickens’s Merdle, Anthony Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte — both loosely based on Nathan Rothschild — or our own age’s George Soros. This kind of gambler calculates the odds of each bet very carefully. He scales each wager according to the strength of his conviction and the ratio of reward to risk. The speculator doesn’t always win, but he wins much more often than he loses, and sometimes he wins big. This second kind of gambler becomes very, very rich.
Yet there is a third kind of gambler, who lies between these two extremes. This gambler neither ruins himself nor becomes as rich as Croesus. He wins some; he loses some. He does not gamble to become a billionaire. He gambles for the sheer love of gambling.
The risk-lover does not calculate as Soros does. He bets every day on the basis of his intuition — his gut. To him, the bet is an act of will, intended as much to dominate the counterparty as to make money. The bravado is the point, regardless of the size of the bet. I’ll bet you I win this round of golf. I’ll bet I can make this casino more profitable if you lend me the money to buy it. I’ll bet I can become president of America. I’ll bet this coronavirus is nothing bigger than the normal flu.
Donald Trump, as you will have guessed, is a type-three gambler. He did not blow the money he inherited from his father; nor did he turn it into a mega-fortune. He has made many a disastrous business bet, as his creditors have learnt the hard way. Yet Trump has gambled his way from property to reality TV to real power. And now he is making the biggest bet of his entire life.
He is betting that the number of Americans who die of Covid-19 will be about 40,000 — in other words, approximately the number who die of influenza each winter. (That was the number cited by one of his Wall Street friends last week, after a call with the president, as a “worst-case scenario”.)
Very obviously, Trump’s chances of re-election now hinge on how severely the pandemic hits America. Natural disasters, if they seem to be mishandled, can be political disasters, too — think of George W Bush’s loss of popularity after Hurricane Katrina. And recessions reliably spell doom for incumbents.
America is now in a pandemic-induced recession. The stock market, despite last week’s remarkable rally, is still more than 20% below its February high, effacing most of the gains investors have made since Trump’s election. The combination of public panic, rational social distancing and state-level orders to “shelter in place” has thrown the US economy off a cliff. Jobless claims soared last week to nearly 3.3 million, the biggest jump — by a factor of almost five — since records began.
The president’s bet is not as crazy as you might think. It is, as I said last week, unlikely that America as a whole will have as disastrous an encounter with Covid-19 as Italy. Americans are less crowded together, use less public transport and kiss one another less than Italians. It is also possible the virus will claim many more victims in the big Democratic-voting states of the American coasts — New York and California — than in the smaller, Republican-voting states of the heartland. Thus far, only 19% of Covid-19 deaths are in counties Trump won in 2016.
Those writing the obituaries of this presidency have written them many times before and been wrong. They must have read with incredulity the results of last week’s Gallup poll, which showed a majority of voters — and in particular a majority (60%) of registered independents — approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
The problem is that this time Trump is gambling with people’s lives on the basis not of calculated risk but of total uncertainty. We simply do not know enough about the virus Sars-CoV-2 to have any conviction about how many Americans it will kill. In the absence of adequate testing around the world, we still don’t quite know how many people may already have caught the virus and be just fine. We don’t know just how infectious it is. And we can only guess at how lethal it is, on the basis of widely divergent case fatality rates from around the world.
Pandemics are not like house fires or car crashes: they are not normally distributed along a bell curve but governed by a power law, which means we cannot attach a probability to the timing or scale of a pandemic. Covid-19 could kill 40,000 Americans. But if the virus spreads as far as H1N1 — swine flu — did in 2009, so that 20% of us get it, and the US has the (very low) German case fatality rate of 0.7%, we could have 400,000 dead. As my near namesake, the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, demonstrated last week, small changes to the variables in an epidemiological model can produce mortality projections that differ by an order of magnitude.
All we can say with any certainty is that most of east Asia and most of Europe have taken much more drastic steps to contain Covid-19 than America has yet taken. And the president wants to see even those restrictions lifted in a mere two weeks’ time.
Such is Trump’s gamble with American lives. The one thing to be said in his defence is that, like his British counterpart — who very nearly gambled on a strategy of herd immunity and has now tested positive for Covid-19 — he has skin in the game. Trump too will be at risk if this gamble goes wrong. In Italy, the case fatality rate for the president’s age group is one in 20.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
I know Joe Biden. Not well, but well enough to have had a good chat when we ran into one another at the Irish embassy in Washington on St Patrick’s Day last year. I must also confess to rather liking Biden. In 2015 I argued that he would win if he ran the next year. He would certainly have been a more engaging candidate than Hillary Clinton, especially in those key states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that carried Donald Trump to the White House.
A veteran professional politician of the homely, Irish-American, middle-class, press-the-flesh variety, Biden overcame personal tragedy (the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and daughter and seriously injured his two sons) to become the reassuringly conventional vice-president to Barack Obama — not only the first black president but just 47 when elected. Because, folks, Biden is exactly what central casting used to think a US president should look like.
Yet in 2020 there has been something about his campaign that has been, well, off. I could give numerous examples of Biden losing his train of thought and stumbling over his words, but this is the one that has worried me the most.
Biden was speaking last Monday at a campaign event in Texas. The crowd was fired up; their man had been on a roll since winning South Carolina two days earlier. And this is what he said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are . . . created by the . . . go . . . you know, you know, the thing.”
I hope you don’t need me to tell you that Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the declaration of independence is a little more eloquent than that. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” No mention of women. No “you know”s. And no “the thing”.
Earlier this year, The Atlantic ran a sympathetic story about Biden’s boyhood stutter, suggesting that this was the reason for his verbal stumbles — though Biden himself kept telling the author that this wasn’t the problem. Listening to him since he launched his campaign, I’ve frequently wondered if he’s suffered a stroke since I last saw him, but we’d surely have heard about that, as we heard about his rival Bernie Sanders’s heart attack.
Maybe one day they’ll make an Oscar-winning film called The Veep’s Speech. Alternatively, Biden is 77 years old and it really, really shows.
These days many people in America struggle with basic arithmetic. On Thursday’s edition of The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, the show’s host and Mara Gay, a member of The New York Times’s editorial board, both appeared to accept the claim that if Mike Bloomberg had distributed to his 327 million fellow Americans the amount he spent on his failed presidential campaign — more than $500m (£383m) — each of us would have received at least million dollars, as opposed to $1.53.
Well, here’s another one for Brian and Mara. What age would Biden be at the end of his time in the White House if he won this November, secured a second term in 2024 and did not kick the bucket along the way? That’s right: 86.
All of which only adds to the mystery of Biden’s political comeback. Prior to his victory in South Carolina on February 29, Biden appeared to be out of it in both senses. By last Wednesday morning he was back where he began last year: the frontrunner, with 627 delegates to Sanders’s 551. Not only did Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar drop out last week, but they promptly pledged their support to Biden. Bloomberg followed suit on Wednesday, while Elizabeth Warren declined to back Sanders, to whom she is closer on the issues but from whom she personally recoils.
There have been primary comebacks before; indeed, an election year is incomplete without at least one. I remember vividly, as one of John McCain’s advisers in 2008, glumly anticipating his exit from the race, only for his almost-broke campaign to turn around and propel him to the nomination after he won New Hampshire. It was that same state that made Bill Clinton “the comeback kid” in 1992.
But Biden lost New Hampshire, finishing in ignominious fifth place. To find a comeback this late in the game, you need to go back to the 1996 Republican nomination contest, when the veteran Kansas senator Bob Dole went into the South Carolina primary having lost three states to the conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan.
The kingmaker then was Carroll Campbell, the state’s popular Republican governor. Just as House majority whip and South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn did for Biden, Campbell went all-in for Dole, signalling to the voters in the state and nationally that he alone had a shot at beating the incumbent president. Dole won South Carolina easily, after which he won every remaining contest with the exception of the Missouri caucuses.
Of course, Dole went on to lose to Clinton, so this is an analogy Biden would probably prefer to have a senior moment about. Yet I am not so sure he would lose to Trump if nominated.
The other key takeaway from last week is that the majority of black voters backed Biden — and not just in South Carolina. As the brilliant young African-American writer Coleman Hughes noted: “The fact that black voters went overwhelming for Biden is only surprising if you’re unaware that black dem voters are way more conservative than white dem voters. The progressive activist class may feel itself to be channeling black America’s politics, but it’s not.”
Black voters matter: the sharp nationwide drop in black turnout between 2012 and 2016 was a decisive factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. But black voters don’t necessarily gravitate towards black candidates — otherwise Kamala Harris and Cory Booker would have got further with their nomination bids.
In the coming months, the virulence and lethality of Covid-19 will almost certainly matter more than Biden’s charm and incoherence. A large outbreak in an American state and/or a recession caused by the global shock of the potential pandemic could make Trump a one-term president.
St Patrick’s Day is nine days away. If the luck of the Irish holds, Trump is about to be hit by a cross between Hurricane Katrina and Lehman Brothers, and the man he derides as “Sleepy Joe” will duly oust him from the White House.
And if Covid-19 hits only the Democratic states of the coasts? If the economy stalls for a quarter but doesn’t crash? If the message sticks in the Midwest that the outbreak was a hoax?
Then I fear we are in for one of the least intelligible concession speeches in . . . you know, the thing.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford