In the runup to a bout with Evander Holyfield in 1996, a reporter asked reigning American boxing champion Mike Tyson about his opponent's fight plan. "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth," Tyson sniffed.
The global response to Covid-19 could elicit a similar response. After a year in which the coronavirus killed more than 3 million people, it is re-accelerating in India. But even though the global crisis is far from over, it has already planted the seeds of a conflict over which economic and political models were reinforced by the pandemic, and which were weakened by it.
In "Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe", historian Niall Ferguson seeks to put Covid-19 in context by reviewing nearly everything bad that has ever happened to humanity. Seeking an analytical framework to apply to human miscalculation in the face of cataclysm, he ranges far and wide. He offers the example of Pliny the Elder, the otherwise clever Roman philosopher, who having watched Mount Vesuvius erupt offshore, sailed over to rescue a friend and then delayed his departure until he was killed by toxic gas. To justify this dubious decision he left a quip which has been quoted out of context ever since: "Fortune favours the bold."
The causes and predictability of volcanic eruptions, deadly diseases and financial crises vary, and Ferguson wades into them all. But his priority is to examine why and how politicians make bad situations worse. He's reluctant to lay all the blame on leaders like India's Narendra Modi, former US President Donald Trump or Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro. The Harvard University professor is more inclined to explore why institutions and middle managers fail. Why did NASA bureaucrats add three zeroes to estimates showing there was a one in 100 chance that the space shuttle Challenger's booster rockets would fail, killing seven astronauts in 1986? Why did Chinese local officials last year initially censor doctors and declare publicly that the coronavirus was not transmitting between humans?
"Doom" refers frequently to the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of "Antifragile", which argues that some structures and institutions are strengthened by turmoil. The question is which societies will emerge from Covid-19 stronger.
For China's leaders, their decisive response to the outbreak validates the country's authoritarian and economic template. Once Beijing realised the local assessment of the emerging virus was lethally off the mark, it moved quickly. Scientists established Covid-19's genetic sequence and informed the World Health Organization. At the same time the ruling Communist Party turned the country's weak civil society to its advantage. Entrenched suspicion of strangers made draconian lockdowns easy; some building managers chained migrants from other cities inside their flats and evicted Africans.
After swallowing this bitter medicine, Chinese manufacturers restarted production and manufacturers nimbly seized global market share. Indeed, the experience may have prompted some officials to rethink their push to wean the country's economy off exports and pivot to domestic consumption.
Such triumphalism is premature given how much credit it took to keep China's growth afloat. Even so, the United States looks worse: the country's 575,000 deaths from Covid-19 are an indictment of its inability to protect its population. Partisan fanaticism and a mob rioting on the Senate floor give other governments reason to debate which side to join if they must choose between Beijing and Washington.
Ferguson, a prominent conservative and China hawk, rejects this conclusion. He argues that the pandemic has concentrated the United States on fending off the Chinese threat, just as Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 galvanised US research and development during the Cold War. In the end it will be the United States that is strengthened more than China, Ferguson argues.
US success in developing and distributing vaccines is encouraging on this point. The number of Americans who have received at least one dose is approaching 50%. In China, where the government has pandered to its traditional medicine industry, just 12% of the population has been jabbed.
Ferguson mischievously suggests the society that has proven itself truly anti-fragile during the pandemic is Taiwan. China's neighbour quickly contained the outbreak, reported impressive economic growth and drew closer to the United States. Meanwhile, China's internal imbalances have been aggravated by the outbreak, and it has never been more resented by its largest trading and investment partners.
But the Communist Party's hubris might be a problem. China's turn inward has accelerated even as its military ventures further into Taiwanese air and sea space. The leadership has fallen into a mindset similar to that of Imperial Japan before World War Two, including the risky assumption that US political dysfunction makes it less dangerous, not more. If all crises contain the seeds of the next to come, Covid-19 has planted in fertile soil.