Audrey Tang, virtual savior. Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images
This is a tale of two very different islands, two very different people, and two very different responses to a single global disaster.
The current predicament of the two islands reminds us that great pandemics do not end, like great wars, with a single, glorious day of victory — or a single, ignominious day of defeat. Pandemics seem to end, only to begin again with sudden outbreaks. They necessitate a prolonged game of Whac-A-Mole against the infectious disease in question.
In the past few weeks, this has been playing out in both Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China but claimed by Beijing as a province, and Britain, officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, formerly a member of the European Union. In Taiwan’s capital of Taipei, there has been a sudden surge in cases of Covid-19. The same has been happening in the northern English town of Bolton as well as in London. For politicians and public health officials in both countries, these are anxious days.
Pandemics have fewer heroes than wars. For me, Audrey Tang — Taiwan’s minister without portfolio since 2016 — is one of the true heroes of the Covid crisis, because her pioneering use of information technology was one of the key reasons Taiwan did so very well at preventing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus last year.
By contrast, Dominic Cummings — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key adviser from July 2019 until his abrupt and acrimonious departure from Downing Street last November — has frequently been represented as a villain in the British media.
If Tang is now one of the world’s coolest brainiacs, Cummings is more than ever the “career psychopath,” in the damning phrase of former Prime Minister David Cameron. Yet Cummings may in reality have been a hero, albeit an unlovable one. Tang and Cummings are the odd couple of the pandemic. To analyze the roles they played is to give a human face to the radically different experiences of the two islands.
Of course, Taiwan and Britain are scarcely peas in a pod. The U.K. is nearly seven times larger in area, fives time larger in terms of gross domestic product, and three times larger in population. The U.K.’s per capita GDP in 2019 was two thirds higher than Taiwan’s. Culturally, too, they are profoundly different, even if their inhabitants share a love of tea.
Yet it is hard to believe that simple differences in size, wealth or culture can explain the astoundingly divergent paths the two islands have taken since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Taiwan has thus far recorded fewer than 4,000 Covid cases and 15 deaths. The U.K. has had 4.4 million cases and close to 128,000 deaths. Yet the virus responsible for these deaths was first discovered in Wuhan, China, less than 600 miles away from Taiwan’s capital. London is nearly 10 times further away from Wuhan than Taipei.
We may think of a pandemic as a “natural” disaster, in the sense that most experts still think the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolved naturally rather than being engineered (even if the allegation that it was accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan seems more plausible now than it did a year ago). But only human action can explain the vast discrepancy between the Taiwan and U.K. experiences of this disaster.
The Little Island That Could
Percent change in GDP
Source: International Monetary Fund
Another striking difference has been economic. Last year, the U.K. suffered one of the most severe contractions in its history, with GDP shrinking by close to 10%. Taiwan’s economy grew by 3.1%. The U.K.’s net public debt has jumped from 75% of GDP in 2019 to a projected 97% this year. Taiwan’s was 30.8% of GDP in 2019. It is likely to be 30.6% this year.
In short, even allowing for this month’s outbreak, Taiwan has been all but unscathed by Covid-19. In terms of both public health and economic performance, the U.K. has been hammered.
Bigger Island, Deeper Hole
General government net debt as percent of GDP
Source: International Monetary Fund
The great question of the plague 2020-21 is why so many Western countries — in the Americas as well as in Europe — did so much worse than a few East Asian countries at handling a novel coronavirus. There are a variety of simplistic answers to this question. One is that populist presidents and prime ministers messed up the Western pandemic response. Another is that Oriental collectivism was superior to Occidental individualism in the face of a new pathogen. Neither of these explanations is remotely sufficient, if they have any value at all.
True, Johnson doubtless made errors of judgment last year, though not as many as U.S. President Donald Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But plenty of Western countries with centrist or technocratic leaders have done even worse than Britain, the U.S. and Brazil in terms of excess mortality.
Italian excess mortality exceeds British, to name just one of the European Union countries that has fared worse. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have all suffered higher excess mortality than the U.S. and Brazil. None of the leaders of these countries last year fit the populist paradigm. The idea that Britain would have fared much better with a different prime minister — whether Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn or Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May — seems, on reflection, implausible.
As for the U.S., many Democrats would dearly love to believe that if Joe Biden had somehow been sworn in a year earlier — or if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016 — the country would have handled the pandemic much better. Leadership would doubtless have been far less erratic, but most of the really important mistakes by the U.S. public health bureaucracy would almost certainly still have been made, regardless of who was in the Oval Office.
The Centers for Disease Control would still have bungled testing. The government and the big tech companies would still have failed to enable digital contact tracing. The national and state authorities would still have failed to enforce quarantines. Democratic-controlled state governments, including those of New York and California, would still have failed to keep the infected away from the vulnerable, especially in elderly care homes.
If the swine flu that struck the U.S. in 2009 had been as deadly as Covid, how well would President Barack Obama’s administration have done? In the words of Ron Klain, then as now Biden’s chief of staff, “We did every possible thing wrong. And … 60 million Americans got H1N1 in that period of time. And it’s just purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. Had nothing to do with us doing anything right. Just had to do with luck.”
As for Western individualism, this is a cliche that starts to look absurd when you consider how people actually behaved last year. It was in the U.K., not Taiwan, that the population was placed under virtual house arrest by lockdown orders. To live in London was to be subjected to restrictions that at times recalled the Blitz during World War II.
To live in Taipei, by contrast, was to experience some of the lightest-touch restrictions on personal freedom of any developed country. The Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford created a “stringency index” to capture the scale of restrictions imposed by governments during the past year and a half. The average score for Taiwan has been 25, where 0 would be no restrictions and 100 would be total lockdown. The average stringency score for the U.K. to date is 65.
The key to what happened around the world in the plague year was how far governments and particularly public health agencies followed the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant’s maxim that, in the face of a new, contagious and deadly pathogen, the key things are “early detection and early action.” Taiwan — and other places in Asia and the Pacific — did both. The U.K. — and nearly every Western country — did neither.
In the East, it is true, they had learned the lessons of two previous coronavirus outbreaks, SARS (2003) and MERS (2012). But there was more to Taiwan’s success than that. For example, a website was used to ration face masks when they were scarce. Had there been an outbreak in Taipei, officials had a plan to subdivide the city into separated neighborhoods. Schools remained open, albeit with elaborate and strictly enforced precautions.
In the U.K., by contrast, there was late detection and late action. The responsibility for this double trouble surely lay with the government’s public health experts: Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser; John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and my near-namesake Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, the key epidemiological experts on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag); and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which reported directly to the prime minister and whichever group of ministers he chose to assemble in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (Cobra).
These experts would appear to have dithered: As late as Feb. 21, Nervtag recommended keeping the threat level at “moderate.” On March 9, four days after the U.K.’s first death, SAGE rejected the idea of a lockdown, as it would only lead to a “large second epidemic wave once the measures were lifted.” At this point, the experts were apparently still thinking of the coronavirus as if it were a new strain of influenza. On March 13, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told the BBC that the aim was to reach herd immunity, but in a managed way, so as to avoid overwhelming the National Health Service.
Then the experts panicked. On March 16, Ferguson published the most influential paper of his career, predicting that without both “mitigation” (social distancing) and “suppression” (lockdowns) — maintained until there was a vaccine — there would be “approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the U.S.” With public apprehension mounting, herd immunity was ditched in favor of an unprecedented shutdown of British social and economic life.
Events veered between farce and tragedy in the subsequent days. Ferguson himself developed Covid‑19 symptoms, and both Johnson and Health Minister Matt Hancock tested positive on March 27. Johnson was hospitalized on April 5 and moved to intensive care the next day, though he later rose from his bed, with characteristically immodest timing, on Easter Sunday.
Ferguson was caught violating the distancing rules he himself had recommended in a romantic tryst; Cummings was spotted infringing the lockdown on a cross-country trip. Private-sector computer programmers then got hold of Ferguson’s model and tore it apart. These dramas, manna from heaven for journalists, were no doubt diverting to a people confined to their homes. But they distracted attention from the true nature of the British government’s failure.
Since the breakdown of their relationship, Johnson has found himself in a war of words with Cummings over a bewildering number of issues. Who leaked what to whom? Who paid for the redecoration of the prime minister’s private quarters in Downing Street? But the substantive issue is Cummings’s bitter critique of the government’s Covid response, which he unleashed as a lengthy and typically rebarbative Twitter thread last week.
Full disclosure: I have known Dom for years. We are both Oxford-trained historians, and we were both proteges of the great Norman Stone. But we were on opposing sides of the Brexit debate and it was only after he led the “Leave” campaign to victory that I began to pay attention to his writings on the problems of modern British government.
Earlier, bruising experiences as an adviser to Michael Gove when Gove was education minister had convinced Cummings that Whitehall — i.e., the British civil service — was a profoundly dysfunctional bureaucracy in desperate need of disruption. His latest broadside restates the case and argues that this — and not Johnson’s wayward leadership — was the principal reason for Britain’s poor Covid performance.
“The covid plan,” Cummings notes, “was supposed to be ‘world class’ but turned out to be part disaster, part non-existent.” This is fair comment. On paper, the U.K. and the U.S. ranked as the “most prepared” countries in the world in terms of global health security in a 2019 report. But not only did the U.K. government have, in Cummings’s description, a “joke borders policy” — almost no restrictions were placed on arriving travelers at Heathrow for most of last year — it also persisted with a failing plan long after greater public scrutiny would have forced a change of course.
“One of the most fundamental & unarguable lessons of Feb-March,” writes Cummings, “is that secrecy contributed greatly to the catastrophe. Openness to scrutiny wd have exposed Gvt errors weeks earlier than happened.” The problem is partly Whitehall’s “cultural hostility to openness” and partly its tendency to rate and promote civil servants on criteria other than actual results.
The one thing that the U.K. got very right — its very rapid and efficient vaccination procurement and rollout — was a success precisely because it was taken away from the career civil servants and given to a task force led by a venture capitalist, Kate Bingham.
Love him or hate him — and the haters overwhelmingly outnumber the lovers — Cummings’s critique of “the silent entropy of Whitehall” rings true. He is rightly skeptical of the proposed public inquiry into the U.K.’s handling of Covid because it “will at no point ask: how does the deep institutional wiring of the parties/civil service program destructive behaviour by putting the wrong ppl in wrong jobs with destructive incentives? It will all be about relatively surface errors. … The point of the inquiry is … to delay scrutiny, preserve the broken system & distract public from real Qs, leaving the parties & senior civil service essentially untouched.”
Cummings was one of those who urged the imposition of lockdown measures in mid-March on the ground that the alternative was a level of contagion that would overwhelm the National Health Service. But his preference would have been much earlier action that could have been much better targeted. As he rightly says, the “evidence [is] clear that fast hard effective action best policy for economy AND for reducing deaths/suffering.” Significantly, the “best example” he cites is Taiwan, which “shows that if you REALLY get your act together not only is econ largely unscathed but life is ~normal. But SW1 (Remain/Leave, Rt/Left) = totally hostile to learning from East Asia.” (SW1 is the London postcode for Whitehall as well as Westminster, where Parliament is located.)
Does Taiwan deserve to be held up as a role model for the Western world as whole? The events of recent weeks have proved that even the wizards of Taipei can be caught out by this wily, shapeshifting virus.
The proximate cause of the recent outbreak was lax enforcement of quarantine rules for air crews. Whereas passengers arriving in Taiwan must quarantine for 14 days — a rule that is strictly enforced — pilots and cabin crew are required to quarantine for just five. This was too short a time. A handful of infected pilots spread the virus to family members as well as staff at the airport quarantine hotel, which had failed to separate regular guests from guests undergoing quarantine.
By May 11, community spread was identified at a local chapter of Lions Club International. One gregarious member appears to have been a super-spreader, carrying the virus to a hostess tea shop in Taipei’s Wanhua district and a games hall.
Taiwan’s current wave of Covid infections is still tiny by global standards — a seven-day moving average of 321 cases as of Friday. However, this is by far the largest outbreak of the pandemic so far in Taiwan. The previous peak was only 20 cases per day, in late March 2020.
The near-vertical trajectory of the case curve over the past week indicates that the outbreak is being driven by community spread, not a few super-spreader events. So far, there have been just three deaths in the current wave, but more may follow, as a significant proportion of those infected are over 50.
Earlier this week, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung issued a Level Three alert (the second-highest level) shutting all gyms, bars, clubs and cinemas in Taipei. Gatherings indoors are now limited to five people, outdoor gatherings to 10, and foreigners have been banned from entering without a residency permit until June 18. Fines for not wearing a mask have been increased. School classes have been suspended in Taipei and New Taipei City since May 17. It remains to be seen if these measures will suffice to contain the outbreak.
“We are victims of our own success,” Audrey Tang acknowledged when I spoke with her on Monday night. For example, many people postponed getting vaccinated in the belief that a cheaper homegrown vaccine would be available by July and there was no risk in delaying. A tiny share of the population (0.1%) had received one vaccine dose on the eve of the outbreak.
However, the biggest sin of omission has been the failure to build adequate testing capacity. New Taipei City ran out of testing capacity after just 200 tests on May 17, and the government has accumulated a backlog of unprocessed tests (estimated to be around 30,000).
Yet I am willing to bet that, rather as South Korea did last year, Taiwan is going to be able to bring this outbreak under control within a relatively short period, because it has the key tools to do so.
Thanks to the work of Tang and her colleagues, Taiwan already has a contact-tracing app, officially called a “social-distancing app.” It informs all of a person’s close contacts from the last 14 days in the event of positive Covid test. It did not need to be used in 2020, but now it is being rolled out rapidly, with several million people already registered.
Taiwan’s open-source network for geek-to-government collaboration, G0V (pronounced “gov-zero”) has also created a website to track the outbreak, aggregating data from hospitals and other sources. And citizens have been using Google maps to create “risk maps” in order to help people better social distance.
The most appealing feature of Tang’s approach is her emphasis on using software and smartphones to empower ordinary people, rather than the government. This has its roots in the 2014 student protests known as the Sunflower Movement, which she supported. She was invited to become a minister after successfully creating a media and digital competence program for use in Taiwan’s schools
In an interview last year, Tang spoke of the way Taiwan uses open-source software tools to tap the “collective intelligence” of civil society through “participatory mechanism design.” Examples, such as Join and vTaiwan, are built on top of Pol.is, a software program described by one of its co-founders as a “tool for turning crowds into coherence” — or “rough consensus.” This, Tang argues, is the exact opposite of the AI-enabled Panopticon under construction on the Chinese mainland. “The more they develop,” she says, “the more drawbacks that we see from our lens of human rights and democracy. We’re like, ‘OK, we should totally not go there.’”
Just as her approach to the pandemic was not only to help citizens be better informed but also to help better inform the government, so her approach to misinformation and disinformation was not censorship but satire. “We fought off the pandemic with no lockdown,” she said last year, “and the infodemic with no takedown.” The Tang approach was to deploy “humor against rumor” — funny memes against fake news.
I have learned a lot from the odd couple since I began thinking and writing about networks and contagions back in 2016. It’s not something I would previously have anticipated. There was a time when I regarded Dom Cummings as an incorrigible maverick, who had embraced Brexit mainly to show off his skills as a political wrecking ball. If you had told me that a transgender software nerd from Taiwan would one day be the heroine of one of my books, I’d have scoffed.
But such unusual people — brainiacs or psychos as they may seem to more conventional minds — turn out to be exactly the people you want to have around when disaster strikes. The fact that one is a government minister while the other is a jobless pariah neatly sums up this tale of two islands.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Small world, big problem. Photographer: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
The Covid-19 pandemic is not over, but it is already clear that Lord Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, has won his 2017 bet with the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six-month period starting no later than Dec. 31, 2020.”
Last year, according to Johns Hopkins University, the SARS-CoV-2 virus claimed the lives of 1.8 million people. The global death toll could exceed 5 million by Aug. 1 — or 9 million, if one accepts the drastic new upward revision by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It could have been worse, of course. In March 2020, some epidemiologists argued that, without drastic social distancing and economic lockdowns, the ultimate death toll could be between 30 and 40 million. Yet the cost of such nonpharmaceutical interventions has been enormous — for the U.S. alone, an estimated 90% of GDP.
Lord Rees’s was only one of many warnings before 2020 that humanity’s most clear and present danger was a new pathogen and the global pandemic it could cause. Yet somehow these warnings did not translate into swift, effective action in most countries when a pandemic struck. Why did so many democracies handle this crisis so badly?
The line of least intellectual resistance has been to blame populist leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Certainly, they did not distinguish themselves, to put it mildly. In terms of excess mortality, however, Belgium fared worse last year than the U.S., the U.K. and Brazil. Yet its prime minister for most of 2020 was a liberal, Sophie Wilmes. Peru has been harder hit than almost any major country. Though its president, Martin Vizcarra, was also impeached (twice) last year, he cannot really be described as a populist.
Was democracy itself the problem? No. In China, the one-party state responded to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in much the same way that its Soviet counterpart had responded to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster: with lies. On Dec. 31, for example, Beijing told the World Health Organization that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission. The next day, eight Wuhan doctors who had sought to sound the alarm were detained. President Xi Jinping’s government prevented the spread of the virus beyond Hubei only by draconian restrictions on individual freedom.
Other authoritarian regimes fared worse, though we cannot be sure just how badly, as Russian and Iranian mortality statistics are not to be trusted. The true winners in their pandemic responses were Taiwan and South Korea, two East Asian democracies. The race to develop vaccines was won by biotech companies in the U.S. and Germany. The race to distribute them was won by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the U.K.
We tend to draw a distinction between natural and man-made disasters. But a pandemic is made up of a new pathogen and the social networks that it attacks. We cannot understand the scale of the contagion by studying only the virus itself, because the virus will infect only as many people as social networks allow it to, and that in turn has a lot to do with politics.
Even an earthquake is only as catastrophic as the extent of urbanization along the fault line — or the shoreline, if it triggers a tsunami. A catastrophe lays bare the societies and states that it strikes. It is a moment of truth, of revelation, exposing some as fragile, others as resilient, and others as (to use Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s word) “antifragile” — able not just to withstand disaster but to be strengthened by it. In that sense, all disasters are man-made, in that our actions, including our political preparations and responses, determine the scale of the excess mortality.
“Strange Defeat” was the title the historian Marc Bloch gave his account of France’s collapse in the summer of 1940. In many ways, the American and European experiences of Covid-19 have both, in their different ways, been strange defeats, though it was germs not Germans that inflicted the casualties. Poor leadership played a part, no doubt. But it was certainly not Bloch’s contention that France’s strange defeat was all the fault of Prime Minister Paul Reynaud.
Disasters are by their very nature hard to anticipate. Some are “predictable surprises,” like Michele Wucker’s “gray rhinos” that we see rumbling toward us. Yet sometimes, at the moment they strike, these gray rhinos can metamorphose into Taleb’s “black swans” — seemingly bewildering events that it is now claimed “no one could have foreseen.”
This is partly because many disastrous events are governed by power laws, rather than a normal probability distribution of the sort that our brains more readily comprehend. Plotted on a graph, the distribution of pandemics is not the familiar bell curve, with most outbreaks clustered around the mean. Rather, if you plot the size of pandemics against the frequency of their occurrence using logarithmic scales, you get a straight line. The same is true of earthquakes.
This means that there is no average pandemic or earthquake; there are a few very large ones and a great many quite small ones, and there is no way of attaching a probability to the timing of a very large one. The same goes for man-made disasters such as wars and revolutions (which are more often disastrous than not) as well as financial crises — economic disasters that have lower death tolls but, often, comparably disruptive consequences.
A defining feature of history is that there are many more black swans — not to mention what Didier Sornette calls “dragon kings,” events so large in scale that they lie beyond even a power-law distribution — than a normally distributed world would lead us to expect. All such events lie in the realm of uncertainty, not of calculable risk.
Moreover, the world we have built has, over time, become an increasingly complex system prone to all kinds of random behavior, nonlinear relationships and “fat-tailed” distributions. A disaster such as a pandemic is not a single, discrete event. It invariably leads to other forms of disaster — economic, social and political. There can be, and often are, cascades or chain reactions of disaster. The more networked the world becomes, the more we see this.
Disaster management is made still more difficult by the fact that our political systems promote into leading roles people who seem especially oblivious to the challenges described above: subprime forecasters rather than superforecasters, to use the term coined by the political scientist Philip Tetlock.
The psychology of military incompetence was the subject of an excellent study by Norman Dixon; less has been written about the psychology of political incompetence as a general phenomenon. We can all readily think of individual incompetent politicians. But can we identify general forms of political malpractice in the field of disaster preparedness and mitigation? Five categories come to mind:
This is partly a problem of incentives. Leaders are rarely rewarded for what they did to avoid disasters — for the non-occurrence of a disaster is rarely a cause for celebration and gratitude — and more often are blamed for the pain of the prophylactic remedies they recommended.
Yet not all failures in disaster management are failures of leadership. Often the real point of failure is further down the organizational hierarchy. As the physicist Richard Feynman proved in the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger’s destruction in 1986, the fatal lapse was not the White House’s impatience for a successful launch to coincide with a presidential address. Rather, it was the insistence of mid-level bureaucrats at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that a risk of catastrophic failure was 1 in 100,000, while their own engineers put it at 1 in 100.
This, as much as blunders at the top, turns out to be a feature of many modern disasters. There is, as the Republican congressman Tom Davis said after Hurricane Katrina, a “vast divide between policy creation and policy implementation.” The way the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched testing in the early phase of the pandemic is a perfect illustration of the point. And does anyone even remember the name of the guy who was assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services last year? (Robert Kadlec is the answer.) As they say, he had one job …
In a disaster, the behavior of ordinary people — whether in decentralized networks or unruly crowds — can matter more than the decisions of leaders or orders issued by governments. What leads some people to adapt rationally to a new threat, others to act passively as bystanders, and others to go into denial or revolt? And why can a natural disaster end up triggering a political one, as disgruntled people form themselves into a revolutionary crowd? What causes a crowd to flip from wisdom to madness?
The answers lie in the changing structure of the public sphere. For a disaster is directly experienced by only a minority of people. Everyone else hears about it through some network of communication.
Even in the 17th century, the nascent popular press could sow confusion in people’s minds, as Daniel Defoe found when he researched the plague of 1665 in London. The advent of the internet has greatly magnified the potential for misinformation and disinformation to spread, to the extent that we may speak of twin plagues in 2020: One caused by a biological virus, the other by even more contagious viral misconceptions and falsehoods. This problem might have been less serious in 2020 had meaningful reforms of the laws and regulations governing the big technology companies been implemented beforehand. However, despite abundant evidence during the 2016 election that the status quo was untenable, almost nothing was done.
All disasters, in other words, are to some extent politically constructed, even if we think of some as natural and some as man-made. What should we do ahead of the next one? I have five suggestions.
First, we should stop trying to predict or even attach probabilities to disasters. From earthquakes to wars to financial crises, the major disruptions in history have been characterized by random or power-law distributions. They belong in the domain of uncertainty, not risk. It is better to admit that than to delude ourselves with unattainable and probably misleading precision.
Second, disaster takes too many forms for us to process with conventional approaches to risk mitigation. No sooner have we focused our minds on the threat of Salafi jihad than we find ourselves in a financial crisis originating in subprime mortgages. No sooner have we relearned that such economic shocks often lead to populist political backlashes than a novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc. What will be next? We cannot know. For every potential calamity, there is at least one plausible Cassandra. Not all prophecies can be heeded.
In recent years we may have allowed one risk — climate change — to draw our attention away from the others. In January 2020, even as a global pandemic was getting under way — as flights laden with infected people were leaving Wuhan for destinations all over the world — the discussions at the World Economic Forum were focused almost entirely on questions of environmental responsibility, social justice and governance, or ESG, with the emphasis on the “E.”
The dangers arising from climbing global temperatures are real and potentially catastrophic, but climate change cannot be the sole threat for which we prepare. Recognition of the multiplicity of threats we confront, and the extreme uncertainty of their incidence, would encourage a more flexible response to disaster. Not coincidentally, the places that did best in 2020 included three — Taiwan, South Korea and (despite a serious summer setback) Israel — that face multiple threats, including existential threats from neighbors.
Third, the more networked human society becomes, the greater the potential for contagion, and not just of the biological variety. A networked society needs to have well-designed circuit breakers that can swiftly reduce the connectivity of the network in a crisis, without atomizing and paralyzing society completely. Moreover, any disaster is either amplified or dampened by flows of information. Disinformation in 2020 — for example, viral fake news about bogus therapies or very safe vaccines — made Covid-19 worse in many places.
By contrast, effective management of information flows about infected people and their contacts helped contain the pandemic in a few well-run societies. The correct conclusion is not that big tech companies should have even more power to censor us and trace our movements. Rather, we need to learn from Audrey Tang, the minister who has pioneered the use of technology to empower Taiwanese citizens. That, not Xi’s Greater East Asian Surveillance State, should be the way of the future.
Fourth, Covid-19 exposed a serious failure of the public health bureaucracy in the U.S. and a number of other countries. The American epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, a key figure in the campaign to eradicate smallpox, has said for many years that the formula for dealing with an infectious disease is “early detection, early response.” In Washington and London, there was just the opposite.
Would a different kind of threat — say, a massive cyberattack on our critical infrastructure – produce an equally sluggish and ineffectual reaction? If the problems exposed by the pandemic are not specific to the public health bureaucracy but are general problems of the administrative state, then it probably would. How well would California cope with “the big one” on the San Andreas fault, to say nothing of the fires it would doubtless spark? I shudder to think.
Finally, there is a tendency throughout history, at times of acute social stress, for religious or quasi-religious ideological impulses to impede rational responses. We had all previously contemplated the danger of a pandemic, but more as entertainment (the movie “Contagion”) than as a potential reality. Even now, when other science-fiction scenarios are being realized — not only rising temperatures and climate instability but also the rise and expansion of the Chinese police state, to name just two — we struggle to react coherently and consequently.
In the summer of 2020, millions of Americans took to the streets of nearly 300 cities to protest loudly and sometimes violently against police brutality and systemic racism. However shocking the murder that precipitated the protests, this was risky behavior amid a pandemic of a highly contagious respiratory disease. At the same time, the rudimentary precaution of wearing a mask became a symbol of partisan affiliation. The fact that, in some parts of the country, gun buying seemed more popular than mask wearing testified to the potential for a public-order as well as a public-health disaster.
Covid-19 is not the last disaster we shall confront in our lifetimes. It is just the latest, after a wave of Islamist terrorism, a global financial crisis, a rash of state failures, surges of unregulated migration, and a so-called recession of democracy. Next up probably won’t be a disaster attributable to climate change, as we rarely get the disaster we expect, but some other threat most of us are currently ignoring.
Perhaps it will be a strain of antibiotic-resistant bubonic plague, or perhaps a massive Russian-Chinese cyberattack on the U.S. and its allies. Perhaps it will be a breakthrough in nanotechnology or in genetic engineering that has disastrous unintended consequences. Or perhaps artificial intelligence will fulfill Elon Musk’s forebodings, reducing an intellectually outclassed humanity to the status of “a biological boot loader for digital super intelligence.”
We simply cannot know which of all the possible future disasters will strike and when. All we can do is learn from history how to construct social and political structures that are at least resilient and at best antifragile; how to avoid the descent into self-flagellating chaos that so often characterizes societies overwhelmed by disaster; and how to resist the siren voices who propose totalitarian rule or global government as necessary for the protection of our hapless species and our vulnerable world.
(Corrects spelling of name of the author of “The Gray Rhino” in 10th paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!” Wordsworth was talking about France in 1789, but the line applies better to the America of 1957. That summer, Elvis Presley topped the charts with “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.” But we tend to forget that 1957 also saw the outbreak of one of the biggest pandemics of the modern era. Not coincidentally, another hit of that year was “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns.
When seeking historical analogies for Covid-19, commentators have referred more often to the catastrophic 1918-19 “Spanish influenza” than to the flu pandemic of 1957-58. Yet the later episode deserves to be much better known, 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.
The “Asian flu”—as it was then uncontroversial to call a contagious disease that originated in Asia—was a novel strain (H2N2) of influenza A. It was first reported in Hong Kong in April 1957, having originated in mainland China two months before, and—like Covid-19—it swiftly went global.
Unlike Covid-19, the Asian flu killed appreciable numbers of young people. The age group that suffered the heaviest losses globally was 15- to 24-year-olds.
Like Covid-19, the Asian flu led to significant excess mortality. The most recent research concludes that between 700,000 and 1.5 million people worldwide died in the pandemic. A pre-Covid study of the 1957-58 pandemic concluded that if “a virus of similar severity” were to strike in our time, around 2.7 million deaths might be anticipated worldwide. The current Covid-19 death toll is 3 million, about the same percentage of world population as were killed in 1957–58 (0.04%, compared with 1.7% in 1918-19).
True, excess mortality in the U.S.—now around 550,000—has been significantly higher in relative terms in 2020-21 than in 1957-58 (at most 116,000). Unlike Covid-19, however, the Asian flu killed appreciable numbers of young people. In terms of excess mortality relative to baseline expected mortality rates, the age groups that suffered the heaviest losses globally were 15- to 24-year-olds (34% above average mortality rates) followed by 5- to 14-year-olds (27% above average). In total years of life lost in the U.S., adjusted for population, Covid has been roughly 40% worse than the Asian flu.
The Asian flu and Covid-19 are very different diseases, in other words. The Asian flu’s basic reproduction number—the average number of people that one person was likely to infect in a population without any immunity—was around 1.65. For Covid-19, it is likely higher, perhaps 2.5 or 3.0. Superspreader events probably played a bigger role in 2020 than in 1957: Covid has a lower dispersion factor—that is, a minority of carriers do most of the transmission. On the other hand, people had more reason to be afraid of a new strain of influenza in 1957 than of a novel coronavirus in 2020. The disastrous pandemic of 1918 was still within living memory, whereas neither SARS nor MERS had produced pandemics.
High school students in Washington, D.C., September 1957.
PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION
The first cases of Asian flu in the U.S. occurred early in June 1957, among the crews of ships berthed at Newport, R.I. Cases also appeared among the 53,000 boys attending the Boy Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge, Penn. As Scout troops traveled around the country in July and August, they spread the flu. In July there was a massive outbreak in Tangipahoa Parish, La. By the end of the summer, cases had also appeared in California, Ohio, Kentucky and Utah.
It was the start of the school year that made the Asian flu an epidemic. The Communicable Disease Center, as the CDC was then called, estimated that approximately 45 million people—about 25% of the population—became infected with the new virus in October and November 1957. Younger people experienced the highest infection rates, from school-age children up to adults age 35-40. Adults over 65 accounted for 60% of influenza deaths, an abnormally low share.
Why were young Americans disproportionately vulnerable to the Asian flu? Part of the explanation is that they had not been as exposed as older Americans to earlier strains of influenza. But the scale and incidence of any contagion are functions of both the properties of the pathogen itself and the structure of the social network that it attacks. The year 1957 was in many ways the dawn of the American teenager. The first baby boomers born after the end of World War II turned 13 the following year. Summer camps, school buses and unprecedented social mingling after school ensured that between September 1957 and March 1958 the proportion of teenagers infected with the virus rose from 5% to 75%.
The 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.
With workplaces open, the Eisenhower administration saw no need to borrow to the hilt to fund transfers and loans to citizens and businesses. The president asked Congress for a mere $2.5 million ($23 million in today’s inflation-adjusted terms) to provide additional support to the Public Health Service. There was a recession that year, but it had little if anything to do with the pandemic. The Congressional Budget Office has described the Asian flu as an event that “might not be distinguishable from the normal variation in economic activity.”
President Eisenhower’s decision to keep the country open in 1957-58 was based on expert advice. When the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) concluded in August 1957 that “there is no practical advantage in the closing of schools or the curtailment of public gatherings as it relates to the spread of this disease,” Eisenhower listened. As a CDC official later recalled: “Measures were generally not taken to close schools, restrict travel, close borders or recommend wearing masks….ASTHO encouraged home care for uncomplicated influenza cases to reduce the hospital burden and recommended limitations on hospital admissions to the sickest patients….Most were advised simply to stay home, rest and drink plenty of water and fruit juices.”
Dr. Maurice Hilleman, seen here in the lab in 1963, played a key role in the development of a vaccine for the Asian flu in 1957.
PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
This decision meant that the onus shifted entirely to pharmaceutical interventions. As in 2020, there was a race to find a vaccine. Unlike in 2020, however, the U.S. had no real competition, thanks to the acumen of one exceptionally talented and prescient scientist. From 1948 to 1957, Maurice Hilleman—born in Miles City, Mont., in 1919—was chief of the Department of Respiratory Diseases at the Army Medical Center (now the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research).
Early in his career, Hilleman had discovered the genetic changes that occur when the influenza virus mutates, known as “shift and drift.” It was this work that enabled him to recognize, when reading reports in the press of “glassy-eyed children” in Hong Kong, that the outbreak had the potential to become a disastrous pandemic. He and a colleague worked nine 14-hour days to confirm that this was a new and potentially deadly strain of flu.
Speed was of the essence, as in 2020. Hilleman was able to work directly with vaccine manufacturers, bypassing “the bureaucratic red tape,” as he put it. The Public Health Service released the first cultures of the Asian influenza virus to manufacturers even before Hilleman had finished his analysis. By the late summer, six companies were producing his vaccine.
It has become commonplace to describe the speed with which vaccines were devised for Covid-19 as unprecedented. But it was not. The first New York Times report of the outbreak in Hong Kong—three paragraphs on page 3—was on April 17, 1957. By July 26, little more than three months later, doctors at Fort Ord, Calif., began to inoculate recruits to the military.
Surgeon General Leroy Burney announced on August 15 that the vaccine was to be allocated to states according to population size but distributed by the manufacturers through their customary commercial networks. Approximately 4 million one-milliliter doses were released in August, 9 million in September and 17 million in October.
This amounted to enough vaccine for just 17% of the population, and vaccine efficacy was found to range from 53% to 60%. But the net result of Hilleman’s rapid response to the Asian flu was to limit the excess mortality suffered in the U.S.
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. As one contemporary recalled, “For those who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was nothing unusual about finding yourself threatened by contagious disease. Mumps, measles, chicken pox and German measles swept through entire schools and towns; I had all four….We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.”
D.A. Henderson, who as a young doctor was responsible for establishing the CDC Influenza Surveillance Unit, recalled a similar sangfroid in the medical profession: “From one watching the pandemic from very close range…it was a transiently disturbing event for the population, albeit stressful for schools and health clinics and disruptive to school football schedules.”
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.
A further contrast between 1957 and 2020 is that the competence of government would appear to have diminished even as its size has expanded. The number of government employees in the U.S., including those in federal, state and local governments, numbered 7.8 million in November 1957 and reached around 22 million in 2020—a nearly threefold increase, compared with a doubling of the population. Federal net outlays were 16.2% of GDP in 1957 versus 20.8% in 2019.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was just four years old in 1957. The CDC had been established in 1946, with the eradication of malaria as its principal objective. These relatively young institutions appear to have done what little was required of them in 1957, namely to reassure the public that the disastrous pandemic of 1918-19 was not about to be repeated, while helping the private sector to test, manufacture and distribute the vaccine. The contrast with the events of 2020 is once again striking.
It was widely accepted last year that economic lockdowns—including shelter-in-place orders confining people to their homes—were warranted by the magnitude of the threat posed to healthcare systems. But the U.S. hospital system was not overwhelmed in 1957-58 for the simple reason that it had vastly more capacity than today. Hospital beds per thousand people were approaching their all-time high of 9.18 per 1,000 people in 1960, compared with 2.77 in 2016.
In addition, the U.S. working population simply did not have the option to work from home in 1957. In the absence of a telecommunications infrastructure more sophisticated than the telephone (and a quarter of U.S. households still did not have a landline in 1957), the choice was between working at one’s workplace or not working at all.
Last year, the combination of insufficient hospital capacity and abundant communications capacity made something both necessary and possible that would have been unthinkable two generations ago: a temporary shutdown of a substantial proportion of economic activity, offset by massive debt-financed government transfers to compensate for the loss of household income. That this approach will have a great many unintended adverse consequences already seems clear. We are fortunate indeed that the spirit of the vaccine king Maurice Hilleman has lived on at Moderna and Pfizer, because much else of the spirit of 1957 would appear to have vanished.
Despite the pandemic, people thronged the beach and boardwalk at Coney Island in July 1957.
PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
“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.
We have done a great deal over the past year (not all of it effective) to protect the groups most vulnerable to Covid-19, which has overwhelmingly meant the elderly: 80.4% of U.S. Covid deaths, according to the CDC, have been among people 65 and older, compared with 0.2% among those under 25. But the economic and social costs, in terms of lost education and employment, have been disproportionately shouldered by the young.
The novel that captured the ebullience of the Beat Generation was Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” another hit of 1957. It begins, “I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about.” Stand by for “Off the Road,” the novel that will sum up the despondency of the Beaten Generation. As we dare to hope that we have gotten over our own pandemic, someone out there must be writing it.
This essay is adapted from Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe,” which will be published by Penguin Press on May 4. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Toward the future. Photographer: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
A president elected at a time of deep national crisis generally has an advantage over one elected when things are going fairly well. Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in shortly after the Great Depression reached its nadir. Harry Truman became president in the final, bloodiest phase of World War II. Richard Nixon inherited Vietnam and domestic turmoil from Lyndon B. Johnson. Barack Obama entered the White House in the depths of the global financial crisis.
All four had their ups and downs, but all were re-elected. If you take over at a dark time — especially if it’s just before the dawn — the chances are you’ll be able to play “Happy Days Are Here Again” when you run for a second term.
In a similar way, Joe Biden took the oath of office last Wednesday as the third and biggest wave of the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to be nearing its crest, a year after the Chinese government belatedly acknowledged the seriousness of the disaster that had begun in Wuhan. Like many new administrations since Roosevelt’s in 1933, the Biden administration now seeks to impress us with a hundred days of hyperactivity, beginning with 17 executive actions on Inauguration Day. Coming soon: a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
In truth, the vaccination program already underway, combined with the naturally acquired immunity of people previously infected with the virus, would probably get the U.S. close to herd immunity by the summer, even if Joe Biden spent the next six months just riding his Peloton. And the economy would roar back to something like normal service as the pandemic ended even if Republicans had retained control of the Senate and blocked further fiscal support.
In short, Joe Biden, who starts out with a 68% approval rating, according to Gallup, ought to be even more popular by Memorial Day — not just twice as popular as Trump was throughout his term, but up there with the most popular presidents since polling began: Truman on VJ Day, John F. Kennedy in his first 100 days, George H.W. Bush after the Gulf War, George W. Bush after 9/11 — the exclusive 80%-plus Approval Club.
I suspect it won’t happen. Why? According to legend, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once replied to a journalist who had asked what his biggest problem was: “Events, dear boy, events.” (The phrase Macmillan really used, according to the historian David Dilks, was “the opposition of events.”) The Donald Rumsfeld equivalent was “stuff happens” — stuff like the chaos into which Iraq descended in 2003, dragging his boss’s popularity down with it.
Sometimes events are beyond a new president’s control. Sometimes they are unforced errors of his own making. But presidents don’t simply make history. Often, history comes at them fast.
So enthusiastic are most journalists about the new administration that much coverage of last week’s inauguration recalled late Soviet Pravda. Indeed, I have never been more persuaded by the historian Harold James’s mischievous suggestion last year that the U.S. has entered its “late Soviet” phase. (The young Oxford philosopher Jacob Reynolds nailed it.) Example:
Reporter: Will [Biden] keep Donald Trump’s Air Force One color scheme change?
Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki: This is such a good question!
In the hope that it won’t get me banned from Twitter and Facebook for sedition, I am going to suggest some of the events that could plausibly blow the Biden administration off course in the coming months.
First, a few past examples. No sooner had Truman achieved victory over Japan than the U.S. was gripped by a wave of strikes by everyone from oil workers to elevator operators, as the unions seized the opportunity of peacetime to flex their muscles. Workers at General Motors downed tools for three months. “The Congress are balking, labor has gone crazy and management isn’t far from insane in selfishness,” Truman complained to his mother. Speaking at a Gridiron Club dinner in December 1945, Truman half-joked that William Tecumseh Sherman had been wrong: “I’m telling you I find peace is hell.”
Not long after turning the White House into Camelot with one of the great inaugural addresses, Kennedy was persuaded by the director of central intelligence, Allen Dulles, to launch Operation Zapata, an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. The venture ended in abject failure at the Bay of Pigs on April 20. “We really blew this one,” fumed Kennedy. “How could that crowd at CIA and the Pentagon be this wrong?” The administration had been “revealed as if no more than a continuation of the Eisenhower-Dulles Past,” lamented Kennedy’s court historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “We not only look like imperialists, we look like ineffectual imperialists, which is worse; and we look like stupid, ineffectual imperialists, which is worst of all.”
Having succeeded to the presidency following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson soon embarked on an escalation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The authorization Johnson sought from Congress after the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in August 1964 — to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” — was a crucial step down the path that would destroy his presidency.
Exaggerating the evidence that the Navy destroyer Maddox had come under attack, Johnson seized the opportunity to outflank his Republican rival Barry Goldwater. “I’ll tell you what I want,” he snapped at a breakfast with congressional leaders. “I not only want those patrol boats that attacked the Maddox destroyed, I want everything at that harbor destroyed; I want the whole works destroyed. I want to give them a real dose.”
Escalation in Vietnam was one the greatest unforced errors in American history. It might not have happened if Kennedy had lived. Conversely, think how different history might have been if Ronald Reagan had not survived the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., which occurred just over two months after Reagan’s inauguration. Events, dear boy.
Often the first year of an administration is marred by turf wars and infighting. In Bill Clinton’s case, there was a turbulent contest for influence between those, such as the Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who had been close to Clinton on the campaign trail the previous year, and those, such as the former Republican David Gergen, who were brought in to provide some administrative experience midway through the first year in office.
The great unforced error of Clinton’s first year, vividly described by Bob Woodward in “The Agenda,” was the decision to let First Lady Hillary Clinton drive health-care reform, which she proceeded to do — into a brick wall of congressional opposition. Barack Obama arguably made a similar mistake in his first term when he opted to prioritize health-care reform instead of focusing exclusively on economic recovery.
Joe Biden has one advantage over all his predecessors: No one has come to the highest office in the land with more experience than the man who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, at the age of 29. Re-elected six times to represent Delaware, Biden also served two terms as vice president.
It therefore seems reasonable to assume that he will know to avoid at least some of these pitfalls — especially as he must be keenly aware of how historically slim his party’s control of Congress is. Naive analogies between Biden and Roosevelt or Johnson overlook the stark reality that the Democrats had 59 Senate seats and 313 House seats in 1933, and 68 Senate seats and 295 House seats in 1965 — compared with just 50 Senate seats and 222 House seats today.
Given these narrow majorities, and after an inaugural address that featured the words “unity” or “uniting” no fewer than 11 times, you may be looking forward to a glad, confident morning of bipartisan cooperation. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not going to happen, either. Not only do the Republican Senate and House minority leaders, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, almost certainly intend to rerun the successful Obama-era strategy of opposing every move the Democratic administration makes. Team Biden has also lost no time in providing them with ammunition.
Some of Biden’s executive actions on Day 1 were unobjectionable, but the fact that six out of 17 were essentially measures to liberalize the immigration system was telling, as were the remarks on that subject made last week by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Announcing a plan to give all illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship seems like one easy way to reunite an opposition party that Donald Trump seemed to have divided irreparably by his reckless rabble-rousing just two weeks ago.
Two steps in the same direction are the “woke” executive orders announced last Wednesday. The one “On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” tells all federal institutions and agencies “affirmatively [to] advance equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity … [by] embedding fairness in decision-making processes.” The other, “On Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” will (according to some conservative commentary) require federally funded schools to allow transgender athletes who were born male but identify as female to compete in women’s sports and for women’s scholarships.
For the people who hate Trumpism and wokeism in equal measure, last Wednesday was pure whiplash.
These are not so much forced errors as conscious choices born of the Biden administration’s central policy dilemma. The fiscal and monetary policies favored by its economics team — deficits and quantitative easing as far as the eye can see — will widen the country’s already wide inequalities by cranking up further the prices of real estate and financial assets. Conveniently for Biden, the left wing of the Democratic Party cares more about identity politics than working-class living standards, so they will be fed a steady diet of green new dealing, critical race theory and transgender rights. Welcome to the ESG administration, where environmental and social virtue-signaling will provide a smokescreen for the inexorable growth of shareholder value.
That Republicans will oppose all this is a predictable “gray rhino,” something Team Biden must see coming. The same applies to another impending Harold Macmillan event, namely the deterioration of the public-health crisis in the coming weeks as new strains of SARS-CoV-2 spread across the U.S. The B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in England late last year, has already been found in 12 states. It is between 50% and 70% more infectious as earlier strains of the virus. On Friday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested it may also be more deadly.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and a member of the Biden transition team, spoke last week of “a perfect storm,” telling Bloomberg: “When this B.1.1.7 takes off, it’s going to be hell. That’s what they’re walking into right now. I hope I’m wrong. God, I hope I’m wrong.”
Biden’s public health team will be scanning anxiously the data from the U.K. and from Israel, where races are currently underway between high-speed vaccination programs and the rapidly spreading new strain of the virus. They will be watching even more nervously the news from South Africa, where another new strain has been re-infecting people who had previously had Covid.
According to a sobering report published on Jan. 18 by the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases: “People who have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection are usually protected from being infected a second time … because they develop neutralizing antibodies that remain in their blood for at least 5-6 months … These antibodies bind to specific parts of the spike protein that have mutated in the new variant (K417N and E484K). We now know that these mutations have allowed the virus to become resistant to antibody neutralization. The blood samples from half the people we tested showed that all neutralizing activity was lost.”
It is too early to tell just how bad this news is. What is clear, however, is that SARS-CoV-2 is evolving in ways that threaten our current strategy of vaccination, and that it will continue to do so for as long as the southern hemisphere countries lag behind the developed northern countries in the quantity and quality of vaccines available.
One president, Trump, has already caught Covid-19. Even under normal circumstances, Joe Biden’s health would be a concern. At 78, he is older than Ronald Reagan was at the end of his presidency. The most recent Social Security Actuarial Life Table (for 2017) states that a man Biden’s age has a 4.8% probability of dying within a year. Around two-fifths of his contemporaries are dead already. Now add Covid into the mix. Thus far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 59% of U.S. deaths from the pandemic have been of people older than 74.
Events, dear boy, events. What happens when you announce your plan to relax immigration restrictions and give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship? The answer is that the flow of would-be migrants increases. The number of detentions on the Arizona-Mexico border was already rising last fall. A “caravan” of 9,000 Hondurans is currently making its way northward through Guatemala.
What happens when you come to power after a wave of protest in support of Black Lives Matters that was marred by violence, vandalism and looting, and when at least some members of your party expressed sympathy with slogans such as “Defund the Police”? The answer is that you inherit a wave of violent crime that has seen homicide numbers jump by more than 50% in six major cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Portland and Seattle.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what happens when, despite your obvious contempt for your predecessor, you largely adopt the single most important part of his foreign policy? For all his manifest defects of character, Trump was right to change the direction of U.S. policy toward China — to abandon the fantasy that integration into the global economy was going to liberalize the Chinese Communist Party, and to mount a multifaceted challenge to Xi Jinping’s bid for world power.
On this issue, the Biden administration intends to continue where Trump left off. Incoming secretary of state Antony Blinken told senators at his confirmation hearing last week, “There is no doubt that [China] poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.”
Asked if he agreed with his predecessor Mike Pompeo that China was committing genocide against its Uighur population, Blinken replied: “That would be my judgment as well. I think we’re very much in agreement.” Was he open to imposing trade sanctions in connection with that genocidal policy? Yes. Did he support the move by Pompeo to relax restrictions on official dealings with Taiwan? “I want to see that process through to conclusion if it hasn’t been completed,” replied Blinken.
Even more remarkable was the article published by Kurt Campbell in Foreign Affairs on the eve of the announcement that he would be the “Asia czar” on the National Security Council. “The United States needs to make a conscious effort to deter Chinese adventurism,” wrote Campbell and his co-author, Rush Doshi, who is also contending for an NSC job:
This means investing in long-range conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft and underwater vehicles, guided-missile submarines, and high-speed strike weapons. … [The U.S.] also needs to work with other states to disperse U.S. forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean … [and] to reshore sensitive industries and pursue a “managed decoupling” from China. … Washington will have to work with others to … collectively design penalties if China decides to take steps that threaten the larger order.
Having argued since 2019 that we are waging Cold War II against China, I naturally welcome this tough language. But it is worth reminding ourselves that China is not a passive object of American foreign policy. Within minutes of Biden’s swearing-in as president, the government in Beijing announced personal sanctions against 28 Americans who served in the Trump administration, including Pompeo — not only barring them and their families from entering China, but prohibiting any “companies and institutions associated with them … from doing business with China.” Blinken’s former colleagues at his consulting firm, WestExec Advisors, may be nervously wondering what this might one day mean for them.
The first Cold War was not the stable equilibrium of mutually assured destruction it now appears with the benefit of hindsight. It was one damned crisis after another, with the worst over Korea in 1950, Berlin in 1961 and Cuba in 1962. Something similar will be true of Cold War II. Even when Chinese-American relations were good — back in the days of “win-win” economic interdependence — there were crises.
On April 1, 2001, when George W. Bush was just 10 weeks into his presidency, a U.S. Navy signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet about 70 miles off the island of Hainan, where the American spy-plane was forced to land. The 24 crew members were detained for 10 days, during which they were interrogated. The Chinese fighter pilot was killed in the collision.
Twenty years ago, both sides had strong incentives to defuse the crisis, and American expressions of “sorrow,” interpreted by Beijing as “sorry,” sufficed. But would the same be true today in the event of a comparable collision in the air or at sea? I think not. In 2001, the Chinese economy was 13% the size of the American in current dollar terms, compared with 75% today. And unlike Cold War I, which was fundamentally a transatlantic conflict, with Europe as its major battleground and the Caribbean as a sideshow, Cold War II is transpacific, with East Asia as the major battleground.
At some point in the Biden presidency, I expect, there will be a crisis over Taiwan, North Korea or the South China Sea. And that will be the main event — the moment when we discover if the strange pageant we saw last week was morning in Joe Biden’s America, or the twilight of the late-Soviet United States.