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Like and like? June 15, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

The IT politics podcast had Niall Ferguson in about his latest book which is about catastrophes and disasters and the inability of humans to engage with them in time. I’m not any great fan of Ferguson’s, I suspect quite a few of us aren’t either, and I didn’t come away feeling much warmer to him. His thoughts on famines and responsibility are… curious. For example, with more recent Indian famines during the period of colonial rule he observes that local government which had Indians in it was as much responsible for poor outcomes as the colonial government, which rather misses the point about the nature of colonial administrations.

He’s still banging the drum of the small state and so on, with some modish though in fairness not quite pandemic denialist stuff. For example he doesn’t attach much blame to the Trump Presidency for the outcomes in the US, but even at the level of soft power of influence Trump was disastrous in terms of messaging, continually undercutting public health safety measures and messages and this wasn’t limited to the US but was seen to inflect discussions and attitudes further afield. Then he takes the line that attitudes to safety are too constrained in the contemporary age, looking back to the 1950s when apparently people took such things in their stride in a way that isn’t true now. Given the massive contradiction between the actual outcomes in many states (the US first and foremost but others too) and this supposed safety first culture one has to wonder at the robustness of that argument.

And all this seems to me to ignore another dynamic. I had an uncle who had TB and was in a sanatorium for a number of years in that time period. As even the most cursory analysis of that period demonstrates rather than accepting TB or similar (or indeed worse health outcomes and lower life expectancies) with a phlegmatic shrug of the shoulders there were strenuous efforts on the part of societies and political classes to push back against that, and polio and a range of other diseases. The idea these were just accepted, or tolerated – an acceptable level of disease, is so far from the truth as to be risible.

In respect of the contemporary issue there’s the old saw about how the elderly had to be protected and shielded, but the reality was, as public health experts have noted, when the virus is in general circulation above a certain level in a community there is no way to prevent this from entering care homes. This isn’t to say that mistakes weren’t made, but again, there’s no way to have looser restrictions and not have deaths amongst those in care homes. He suggests too that Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist’s, projection were on the high side and that lockdowns were too blunt or too blunt in their implementation at first, but that seems to be far too rooted in a retrospective view and one that ignores Ferguson the epidemiologist was projecting numbers in the instance of no control measures. But he is deeply unconvincing about the supposed idea that absent lockdowns people’s behaviours would have adjusted in such a way as to keep numbers of deaths low (ie they’d have avoid social mixing, etc – to take one example how would that have protected workers who felt compelled to go to to work?). A Guardian review notes too that he himself was no great shakes at prediction either:

His near namesake, Neil Ferguson, comes in for admonishment for overestimating the death rate from Covid if no preventive measures were taken. The Imperial College London epidemiologist said that, without lockdowns and other prophylactics, as many as 2.2 million American lives were at risk.

Ferguson (the historian) says his own estimate, made in May 2020, was a death toll of approximately 250,000 by the end of 2020 – a total that he still finds plausible when writing in August of last year. In fact, closer to 350,000 Americans died by the end of December (the figure is now over 580,000). And that was with lockdowns, social distancing and masks – at least in most states – and, moreover, the arrival of effective vaccines, which was far from guaranteed earlier in the year.

Or another telling example. He argues that there were more excess deaths in Britain from the 1957-58 Asian Flu outbreak than during the current pandemic – 33,000 people died then, 153,372 so far in this current pandemic (I’m not great with figures but as far as I can tell there were 51m in the UK 1957 and there were 66.8m in 2019 and that’s quite some disparity between 33k and 153k) – but even were that correct that ignores one key aspect, that during this pandemic a wide range of controls were instituted, so even were he right that the excess numbers of dead greater in 1957-1958 (and the late 1968-1969 pandemic) it’s not quite like and like. Absent those controls the numbers of deaths would be many times higher than they actually are. And this here which compares those two outbreaks and Covid-19 which suggest that the latter is ‘at least four times deadlier, adjusted for population change, than the 1957-1958 pandemic’ which in turn was three times deadlier than the 1968-1969 pandemic, and by the by I’m just old enough to remember that period and yet I have no clear memory of the latter even being discussed (which proves nothing at all, though I’m curious do others recall that pandemic’.

And then we get to the new Cold War with China bit!

But enough. Can’t help but feel this is a remarkably reactionary line that was served up from start to finish.


1. Fergal - June 15, 2021

India hasn’t had a famine since gaining its independence in 1947…neither has Ireland!
Famines are man-made…

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benmadigan - June 15, 2021

After Independence Ireland did have a famine. It was particularly bad in the West in the mid-1920s, due to poor harvests, wet weather, rotting potatoes etc.
“By October,(1924) people in Connemara were reported to be surviving on seaweed and shell fish”


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Fergal - June 16, 2021

Interesting Ben… didn’t know that…
I knew people had died of starvation in the 1920s… but an actual famine… how many died?🤷‍♂️


WorldbyStorm - June 16, 2021

The author of the piece suggests that it wasn’t quite a famine but there was considerable distress and there were food shortages. Not sure how many died overall.


2. eoghan - June 15, 2021

I listened to that interview and found it interesting how he went to pains to explain that things like the Indian/Irish famine, COVID response in US/UK etc were more complicated to explain than just attributing them to the malice or incompetence of those in power, and then, without a hint of irony, went on to say that things like the Ukrainian famine and Cultural Revolution were entirely the fault of a spiteful Stalin and Mao with none of the same nuance afforded. Not condoning either of the latter but it’s funny how blatantly ideological he is

Liked by 2 people

WorldbyStorm - June 15, 2021

That’s it. He just cannot see his own bias. It was really interesting because on one level he comes over as much less swivel eyed than a lot of the British right (examples ABC, GB News). But then he says stuff and one thinks, perhaps he’s locked into an even deeper tradition of reaction and I don’t mean fascism but pre-existing strands of ‘traditionalism’ etc.

Liked by 1 person

3. oliverbohs - June 15, 2021

Am at the start of attempting Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US and the first chapter is a v decent repudiation of historians of Ferguson’s ilk. The example he used was of a historian of Colombus who in a book did briefly acknowledge the enslavement and genocide of the Arawaks, but didn’t put emphasis on it. Didn’t deny or ignore it, just chose to write about adventure and Columbus’ “greatness” due to his discoveries. Kept to the party line regarding a certain view of history. Zinn saw that as a choice and an ideological one. And I am not interested in pretending my extremely limited knowledge of history is informed to some degree, a huge degree perhaps, by books following this stance. Noone is innocent.

Liked by 2 people

WorldbyStorm - June 15, 2021



4. Phil - June 16, 2021

Comparisons with TB make my head hurt. We didn’t take respiratorily-transmitted-virus-style safety measures against TB because it’s not a respiratorily transmitted virus, that’s all there is to it. We did take TB seriously, though, even when we didn’t really have a clue about how to stop any one individual contracting it; doctors looked at the large-scale aetiology of infections & concluding that it was a disease that flourished in poor living conditions, which therefore needed to be improved. (And, of course, when we had penicillin we used it.)

It’s a bit like saying that smoking bans are just a moral panic because we managed to deal with heroin without banning it from pubs.


WorldbyStorm - June 16, 2021

Agree Phil, though in fairness to him (not a phrase I often use in relation to Ferguson) he didn’t mention TB, I did, but only to make precisely the point you do, that we took it seriously, that there was never an attitude in the 1940s or 1950s that just saw this as, for want of a better term, ‘the price of doing business’, that there were strenuous efforts to combat the disease. And that’s true for smallpox etc, etc. It’s again this sort of weird retrospective rugged individualism and assumption that people were hardier, less concerned about their health etc. My mothers grandfather in Birmingham was in a pre-penicillin age absolutely terrified of getting pneumonia and convinced it would wipe him out. As it happens, happily, he lived into the late 1950s IIRC, but that fear wasn’t unwarranted. And as you say penicillin was the gamechanger completely (and arrived remarkably late).


benmadigan - June 16, 2021

We had a “sick room” in the house where we were put at the first sign of any illness.Complete isolation for the patient.

Mum acted as nurse. Dad brought toys and books, handing them over and backing out quickly.Siblings could nod and say hello from the “sick room” door when they came back from school but weren’t allowed over the threshold or to stay beyond a couple of minutes!


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