A year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, America would be dangerously complacent to think that it’s back to normal. Rather, it’s “in rehab,” argues Adam Tooze, economic historian and Columbia University history professor, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.
“We need to adopt the attitude of the alcoholic: ‘My name is America, and I have a problem’ should be our opening line,” he says.
He contends that for the U.S. to let its guard down once COVID-19 is ultimately “conquered” would be disastrous since we live in a world potentially teeming with biohazards.
The delta variant shows that “if every time we get sick [from COVID, say], we’re rolling the dice on some even more dangerous mutation coming out, the only way to stop the lottery is for everyone to be vaccinated,” he maintains in the interview.
Tooze’s new book covers the pandemic — “an accident waiting to happen,” he writes — month by month, then predicts problems yet to come.
Amid the pandemic, “the entire world economy contracted 20% in a matter of weeks, and hundreds of millions lost their jobs,” writes Tooze, whose book focuses on the financial and business aspects of the plague. Nearly 95% of global economies saw their GDP shrink.
In the interview, the professor, who was previously with the University of Cambridge and Yale University, provides his forecast for delta’s economic impact and the chances he sees for a major stock market correction.
ThinkAdvisor interviewed London-born Tooze, who was speaking by phone from New York City, on Aug. 17.
The professor clearly is not a Donald Trump fan but remarks, “My book isn’t a kind of gotcha hit piece on Trump with regard to the pandemic, [but he] was far from the ideal chief executive at that particular moment.”
Here are highlights of our interview:
THINKADVISOR: In your 2018 book, “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World,” you wrote that “the U.S. is in a moment of dangerous complacency.” Is it still?
ADAM TOOZE: I think we’re at risk of it, yes. Last year was so terrifying in so many different ways — the disease, the economy, politics. They were all terrifying.
With Biden’s inauguration, there was a belief that we’re back to normal, that America is back, that he’s made America normal again.
But I think the [notion] that we’re normal rather than in rehab is complacent.
We need to adopt the attitude of the alcoholic: “My name is America, and I have a problem” should be our opening line.
What’s the biggest lesson the U.S. government has learned from the pandemic?
They should have prepared to roll out the new [vaccine] technologies on a global scale. They should have focused more on the distribution of getting vaccines in people’s arms.
Nevertheless, it was a triumph of being able to do that kind of technological development very rapidly.
But what would you have been able to do if you had to do it even faster? You needed to have done new trials on lots and lots of candidates for all sorts of possible viruses ahead of time.
They had a head start doing work on coronavirus following SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] in early 2000. It’s absolutely crucial that we need to be in that kind of position because of more of these potential biohazards.
What we should not do when we finally conquer this one is let our guard down. Why not have a [bio] lab rather than a prison in your congressional district? That should be the pitch to Republicans in Congress.
Is it a political point only that the anti-vaxxers are trying to make, or are there other reasons?
It’s many factors. It’s political, it’s cultural. It’s a whole web of different attitudes that say “I’m not going to do what everyone is telling me to.”
They think it’s some sort of “nanny state.”
The tragedy for the U.S. is that such a large part of the population resisted the idea of taking the pandemic seriously from the start. It was a disaster in the making, for sure.
Do you think the world is better prepared now to fight the coronavirus or another pandemic?
We’ve had the experience. The world has equipped itself with effective vaccines. Even if we have to be locked down [again], we’re much better prepared.
But we’re still not out of the woods. It would be premature to focus on new crises. But delta is a sign of how serious this virus is. This is likely part of why the rate of infection we have now is so dangerous.
If every time we get sick, we’re rolling the dice on some even more dangerous mutation coming out, the only way to stop the lottery is for everyone to be vaccinated. But we’re a long way from that.
In “Shutdown,” you write that “the coronavirus was an accident waiting to happen.” Please elaborate.
That’s what the scientists kept telling us for decades. From the 1980s onward, especially with the shock of HIV, there was the realization that we were perhaps living in a much more complicated and dangerous world given our [weakness] in handling these sorts of crises.
But the coronavirus could have been far more lethal than it was. That’s one side of the equation. The other side is that there’s very good reason to think that we were not institutionally prepared or couldn’t be.
So, yes, it was an accident waiting to happen. We were [pressing] our luck; and at some point, our luck ran out.
What could we have done differently?
In the book, I try to lay out the mechanisms by which we don’t end up taking the terrible emergency measures we had to in March 2020.