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How Yaksha, Yudhishthir and COVID-19 come together in Niall Ferguson’s new book

'Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe' sets the ongoing pandemic into perspective through an analysis of major episodes in humankind’s tryst with catastrophes

Written by Ajay Singh |
July 4, 2021 6:20:07 am
doom bookAfter more than a year of humanity’s tryst with mortal vulnerability in the form of the pandemic, ‘Doom’ does not sound like a distant prospect.

Doom: Politics of Catastrophe

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By Niall Ferguson

Penguin, 496 pages

Humanity’s brush with mortality has always had a surreal touch. It finds an incomparable expression in the Yaksha-Yudhishthir dialogue in the Mahabharata. The divine spirit asks, “What is the surprise?” Yudhishthira responds, “Day after day countless creatures go to the abode of Yama (Death). Yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more surprising than this!”

After more than a year of humanity’s tryst with mortal vulnerability in the form of the pandemic, ‘Doom’ does not sound like a distant prospect. It appears knocking at the door. Look around and you will find heart-rending stories of lives lost and lives ruined. But this is not the first time medical science and human progress have been found too inadequate to meet the challenge. The story of humankind has regularly been punctuated by famines, plagues, natural calamities and man-made disasters.

More than a year after the outbreak, we can step back and take a long-term view, and that is what historian Niall Ferguson’s new work, ‘Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe’, aims to do. He covers an impressively wide canvass of disasters, backed by extensive research on major episodes down the centuries.

Each one of them left a different world in its wake. As Ferguson points out, “Pandemics, like world wars and global financial crises, are history’s great interruptions. Whether we consider them man-made or naturally occurring, whether they are prophesied or strike like bolts from the blue, they are also moments of revelation.” In his view, all “disasters are fundamentally alike even if they vary greatly in their magnitude.” Interestingly, he says, after each calamity, society and different interest groups within it often draw wrong conclusions that make the future complicated.

This may come as a surprise to some readers but he summarily rejects the notion of pinning the blame on individuals for letting the disaster happen but looks for larger and deeper factors that have made all the difference. For example, he points out that Covid-19 hit many Western countries hard but could do little damage in Taiwan or South Korea. The society, political class and bureaucracy in some places were very well attuned to meet the challenge squarely and contain the damage, whereas the world’s richest country, the US, and the one with the most efficient health infrastructure, the UK, were in tatters in wake of the first wave.

Ferguson appears realistic when he says it would be wrong to blame certain individuals, particularly heads of governments for the inadequacies of the pandemic response. In his view, though Donald Trump must share the blame for his indiscretions in the midst of a raging pandemic in the US, it would be untenable to blame him singularly for the failures. In fact, Trump’s ‘Operation Warp Speed’ facilitated the production of vaccines at a breakneck speed which is unprecedented in the annals of medical science. Ferguson ascribes the failures to the social network structure, bureaucratic indifference and political callousness.

In this, he is drawing his lessons from Leo Tolstoy’s famous argument in ‘War and Peace’: “A King is history’s slave. History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.” In this view, it would be naïve to blame a leader who “sits atop a hierarchical organizational chart, issuing edicts that are transmitted down to the lowliest functionary. In reality, the leaders are hubs in large and complex networks”. Of course, a leader would be only as effective as his or her network is. In the event of isolation, such complex networks are doomed to fail.

In most cases of nations’ failure to measure up to the challenge of the pandemic, Ferguson finds a manipulative bureaucracy leading the political masters down the garden path. He is quite prescient with his diagnosis when he says, “But it is also true that bureaucrats can manipulate their supposed masters, presenting them – in a way memorably described by Henry Kissinger – with three alternatives, only one of which is plausible, namely, the one the civil servants have already decided on.” He then argues, “A civilian leader nominally stands at the head of a motley, unruly, untrained army. But the line of least resistance may be to admit, echoing the radical republican Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin in 1848, ‘I am their leader; I must follow them’.”

These formulations are quite close to the worldwide reality where the pandemic has devastated lives and economies. He backs up his thesis by referring to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, the financial meltdown of 2008 and a series of other catastrophes in which he finds fault with the middle-rung decision-makers who ignored warning signals leading to the disasters. However, at times, Ferguson appears to be enamoured of his thesis so much that he exonerates Winston Churchill and the British government of their complicity in perpetuating the Bengal famine of 1943. Here he comes out as an unabashed apologist of British imperialism.

Ferguson is censorious of the media and social media for oversimplifying the disaster by blaming “wicked” leaders, purveying lies and untruth for their economic gains and behaving in the most irresponsible manner. “The East India companies of the internet have plundered enough data; they have caused famines of truth and plagues of the mind,” he writes. “Finally, the pandemic ought to force some changes in those media organizations that insisted on covering it, childishly, as if it were all the fault of a few wicked presidents and prime ministers.”

Like the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, Covid-19’s outstanding feature is its universality in distribution of mortality. The impact of the Novel Coronavirus cuts across social, religious, economical and geographical divisions. The rich and the influential are as much affected as those living on the margins of society. But it would be wrong to see equivalence between mortal vulnerability and economic vulnerability. Undoubtedly, the disparity between the rich and the poor is bound to grow as one of the most deleterious aftereffects of the pandemic. The dignity of life stands thoroughly compromised for the poor worldwide as the pathogens are baring the primal instincts of Homo Sapiens – akin to the law of jungle, the survival of the fittest.

Perhaps a society living in the perpetual fear of Doomsday would pave the way, in Ferguson’s words, for a “global catastrophe – totalitarianism”. Obviously, it is a remedy worse than the disease. After his extensive study of disasters over centuries, he strongly recommends the strengthening of the democratic institutions and getting rid of the degenerating parts of the organs from the body politic.

All catastrophes of the past eventually came to an end one day and were soon forgotten. “Mostly, for the lucky many, life after the disaster goes on, changed in a few ways but on the whole remarkably, reassuringly, boringly the same. With astonishing speed, we put our brush with mortality behind us and blithely carry on, forgetful of those who were not so lucky, regardless of the next disaster that lies in wait.”

After millennia, the Yaksh Prashna remains relevant for the humankind which refuses to remove its blinkers. Ferguson befittingly concludes by quoting a ditty sung by British soldiers in World War I that he describes as humanity’s signature tune: “The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling / For you but not for me…” If humanity is cursed with eternal delusion, extinction is not a distant but a palpable possibility.

Ajay Singh is press secretary to the President of India

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