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Renowned historian and author Niall Ferguson believes Colombia had little option but to impose what he refers to as the ‘pretty blunt instrument’ of a lockdown for dealing with coronavirus.
Speaking to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast (recorded on 19 June) Professor Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, revealed Colombian government officials contacted him for advice on dealing with the pandemic.
While he highlighted the relatively good performance of the authorities here in dealing with the health crisis in contrast to other South American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Ecuador, he warned that the data suggest Colombia will be in a ‘worse position four weeks from now.’
‘It won’t be the first time a pandemic has had a very severe impact on South America,’ he explained. ‘The big ones of 1918/19 and 1957/58 hit Latin America very hard indeed and there’s a sense this history is repeating itself. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the region has big cities with dense populations and rather poor public health infrastructure with wide inequalities.’
‘Early detection, early action. If that had happened in Colombia in January people wouldn’t now be locked in their homes and the economy wouldn’t be in the tank.’
Ferguson, author of a number of influential books including The Square and the Tower, Civilization: The West and the Rest and Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, did admit he doesn’t know ‘what good option there is for Colombia in tackling coronavirus.’
He did, however, offer this advice for the next pandemic which ‘will come and could be much worse’:
‘There’s no real reason why Colombia should not be able to do testing and contact tracing if it does it early enough. Most people have mobile phones and a significant amount have smartphones … Early detection, early action, that way you avoid lockdowns. If that had happened in Colombia in January people wouldn’t now be locked in their homes and the economy wouldn’t be in the tank.’
‘In Venezuela, you have a regime that is as destructive as any that we’ve seen in the world in the last 50 years … It is a criminal racket … Under those circumstances, it seems kind of a no-brainer to do something to tip the scales in favour of the democratic opposition.’
As regards the temptation for Colombia’s electorate to seek comfort in extreme politics in the years to come as it deals with the coronavirus fallout, he said ‘the key is to make sure that the range of political options is not too wide. As soon as you have the populism of the left or the populism of the right offering their quick fixes you risk destroying either the economy, which is what the left specialises in, or destroying the free, open society which is what the far-right tends to do.’
Speaking in relation to the possibility of direct US military intervention in Venezuela, the Scottish-born American citizen called the Maduro administration ‘a criminal racket’ and, as such, ‘it seems kind of a no-brainer to do something to tip the scales in favour of the democratic opposition.’
In a wide-ranging interview, Ferguson also talked about the ‘dithering response’ of the US and the UK to coronavirus, the problems with and unintended consequences of the Black Lives Matter movement, today’s ‘cancel culture’ and counterfactual history in relation to Colombia and colonisation.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.