According to Niall Ferguson, the lesson from history we should embrace is that, despite the noble work of scientists, we won’t find a vaccine for COVID-19. As in the past, this disease is something we have to manage and live with.

Indeed, he said, there is no guarantee that the world will have an “after COVID-19” era.

Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He spoke via a webcast hosted by the Munk forum.

As a historian, he said he is among a profession that has been left out of the policy debate. Pandemics are a disaster, like earthquake and wars, that vary in size and frequency and are extremely hard to predict. There were two pandemics – the Antonine plague in ancient Greece and the Black Death – that each killed two thirds of the world’s population. The Spanish flu killed about 3% of global citizens, by contrast.

In January, he was saying that we could not rule out an “utterly disastrous scenario” for the Coronavirus and needed to behave with “absolute urgency.” Now, he said, it’s clear it is not as bad as 1918; “it’s more like the flu pandemic of 1957-1958.” That pandemic, he said, had no lockdowns and minimal closures. The economic and political impact was very minor.

The reaction to the Coronavirus has been much more extreme. “We’ve really radically changed our attitudes in ways that would have baffled President Eisenhower,” he said.

Ferguson argued that the policy response in the U.S. to the virus placed a historically high value on preserving lives. We are in a strange relationship with death, he said, to the point of denying it. “It’s clear that very few people have no idea how many people die where they live.” Previous generations regarded excess mortality as something that “life dealt you,” he said.

He said the U.S. and UK “dithered around” early on – on a bipartisan level – in response to the threat posed by the Coronavirus. “We failed to appreciate how fast the flu traveled – by boat – in 1918,” he said. Many people warned that a pandemic was possible, even likely, given global integration.