“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Gloucester’s despairing words in King Lear have been etched in my memory since I first heard them as a schoolboy. The gods also amuse themselves by sending natural disasters to humble vainglorious leaders.
The world has all four of the horsemen of the apocalypse these days: pestilence, war, famine and death. There is, of course, the pestilence now known as Covid-19, the new coronavirus. There is war in Syria and a nascent civil war in the streets of India. There may well be famine, too, if the locusts continue to ravage the crops of east Africa and south Asia. And there will surely be more death in 2020 than in a typical 21st-century year.
Fortunate is the American president who is not confronted by at least one devastating hurricane or terrorist attack or mass shooting. Fortunate is the president who does not have to console grieving survivors in at least one devastated city. But 2020 is a whole different divine sport.
We had all grown complacent about the threat posed to humanity by disease. I’m not sure quite why. The new diseases of our time did their best to remind us of nature’s supremacy over homo sapiens. From Aids to ebola, from Sars to Mers, we were given repeated warnings that we were just one mutant virus away from calamity.
Perhaps our growing preoccupation with climate change gave the lie to our outward insouciance. But the gods have a cruel sense of humour. Even as we were becoming obsessed by the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions and rising global temperatures in the decades ahead, they sent a virus almost perfectly designed to throw us into confusion right now, at this moment.
The great plague narratives of the past were concerned with diseases that were highly lethal. Read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which starkly depicts the last great plague outbreak in London in 1665. Or read Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), about a wartime romance cut cruelly short by the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. (I especially recommend the latter if illness has never brought you to the brink. Porter’s description of near-death is unforgettable.)
By comparison, Covid-19 is not especially life-threatening. According to the best available data at the time of writing, there have been about 85,000 confirmed cases worldwide, roughly 94% of them in China, and 78% of them in the province of Hubei. The implied global mortality rate is 3.4%, but that is surely an overestimate, because the denominator (total cases) is being underestimated by infected people who don’t feel sick or don’t check themselves in for medical care.
We also know that, unlike the “Spanish flu” of 1918-19, Covid-19 disproportionately kills the elderly and those with existing conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or chronic respiratory disease. Worry about grandparents: the mortality rate for people in their eighties is above 14%, whereas it’s close to zero for those under 40.
Yet those who blithely say, “This is no worse than the flu” — which will likely cause between 16,000 and 41,000 deaths in America this season — are missing the point.
What makes Covid-19 dangerous is not so much the threat it poses to the average person’s life, but the threat it poses to economic growth. Uncertainty surrounds it because it is so difficult to detect in its early stages, when many carriers are both infectious and asymptomatic. We don’t know for sure how many people have it, so we don’t exactly know its reproduction number and its mortality rate. There’s no vaccine and there’s no cure. Last week this uncertainty, crystallised by a leap in the number of Italian cases, gave the US stock market its worst week since the great banking crisis of 2008-9.
I have often been asked in the past few years where the next financial crisis will come from. I have said, time and again, that it will come not from America but from China, now the second-largest economy in the world. Sure enough. A pandemic is very different from a bank run, to be sure, but in each case we witness the same phenomenon, which is characteristic of a networked world: a cascade of consequences driven by fear of the unknown.
Though old enough to be in the vulnerable part of the population, Donald Trump, 73, is well known for his high standards of personal hygiene (“Germaphobia”). Yet it is his presidency, more than his life, that is in mortal danger from Covid-19.
Although his administration did indeed take the right decision, early in the Chinese outbreak, to limit travel from China to America, it did little to prepare for the eventuality of a large US outbreak. Worse, last week Trump made the mistake of playing down the risk. “This is a flu,” he said at his press conference on Wednesday evening. “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for . . . We’ve done a great job keeping it down to a minimum. Tremendous success at keeping the virus away.”
Maybe. But it seems likely that there will soon be an outbreak in California. (Fact: the number of confirmed cases outside China continues to grow exponentially.) No one knows for sure because, we learnt last week, there are just 200 functioning diagnostic kits in the entire state.
As president, George W Bush had at least four brushes with the horsemen of the apocalypse. The first, the September 11 terrorist attacks, dealt a severe but temporary blow to an economy that was already in recession. Newly elected and initially blindsided, Bush struck the right notes of defiance and vengeance and experienced a surge in popularity. The second was the war of choice he launched against Saddam Hussein. Fortunately for Bush, he got re-elected before the public mood had truly soured on the Iraq War.
Then, in 2005, came Hurricane Katrina, which would have made him a one-term president if it had happened a year before. Finally, there was the financial crisis, which drove his popularity down to its nadir and doomed John McCain’s attempt to keep the White House in Republican hands.
A Covid-19 outbreak in one or more large American cities would inflict a September 11-level hit on the US economy and a Hurricane Katrina-level hit on Trump’s popular approval. The fact that the principal beneficiary in that scenario would be a lifelong democratic socialist committed to universal public healthcare must be the kind of thing the gods find entertaining.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford