The book is a history of disasters and our increasing impotence in the face of them. From the Titanic crashing to the Challenger exploding, from the 1918 flu to the 2019 coronavirus, Ferguson argues that “all disasters are in some sense man-made”—or rather men-made. For Ferguson, leaders matter less than the human networks they preside over, and it is the growing complexity of those networks that caused our COVID-19 debacle, and many others before it.
In fact, Doom suggests, the main culprits of that complexity are familiar Trumpian punching bags: globalization and bureaucracy.
Whenever the world becomes smaller, the threat of contagion becomes bigger. Long before flights from Wuhan spread SARS-CoV-2 across the globe, trade and war spread the Black Death across Europe. That pandemic also originated in Asia, Ferguson notes, but ripped through Europe much more rapidly, in part because the West had just gone through a period of sustained commercialization. More trade meant more networks for the virus to transmit, and it was the cities at the center of those networks—Siena, London, Paris, Avignon, Venice—that saw the most deaths.
To be sure, globalization can help solve the problems it creates. European imperialism (one of the greatest globalizing forces in history) heightened the impetus for medical breakthroughs by making pandemics a permanent threat. Exposed to new tropical illnesses from around the world, colonizing powers had to work fast to keep their people—and thus their empires—alive. The resulting medical revolution, Ferguson writes provocatively, “is intelligible only in an imperial context.” Africa and Asia became “giant laboratories for Western medicine,” which soon improved life expectancy across the world, including the colonized regions. “The COVID vaccines are a triumph of globalization,” CATO’s Scott Lincicome declared in November. So were the yellow fever vaccines, invented by colonial powers with outposts in the tropics.