The Plague Year by Lawrence Wright 2021
Two months ago, my top recommendation was Michael Lewis’s Premonition. Move over, Michael, and welcome Lawrence Wright who has written another superb book about the pandemic. While the two books overlap in chronology, topic, and emphasis though their methods differ. Lewis focuses on a small number of individuals whose stories weave together for the overall view while Wright is more panoramic in his vision from the beginning.
Wright is a superb journalist who has turned his attention to big stories like 9/11 and COVID. In this book, he follows a strict chronologic format which is helpful in getting the big picture of this crisis that we’ve lived through in real time. His prose is crystalline; his choice of stories among the hundreds of possible paths is strategic and effective; his overview is masterful.
It was hard to read this book except in small doses. Like my experience with Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’, it was too painful to read in long sittings. I needed a break after becoming infuriated and depressed by our country’s failure to deal effectively with COVID resulting in hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths.
Wright provides interesting and useful information from his analysis of how the the COVID virus began its world wide destruction in Wuhan to how the trump administration failed the American people. The penultimate chapter ties it all together before an epilogue brings the reader up to date through the January 6th insurrection, trump’s failure to overturn the election, and the rise of the Delta variant after vaccines provided some hope. In that chapter, Wright cites the two elements that determined whether a country dealt effectively with the virus or failed: experience and leadership. Countries that had dealt with SARS and/or MERS in the past were quick to quarantine, eliminate travel, and use masks and distancing. As a result, Taiwan had only 8 deaths by the end of 2020. The other element was leadership, and here the blame falls 100% on trump and his crew of false scientists (Atlas) and right wing nutcases (Navarro, et al). In the absence of strong, science-driven, clear messaging from the Federal government’s head, the U.S. with 4% of the world’s population had 20% of the world’s fatalities by the end of 2020. Shame on us.
This is an important book and worth reading. It will anger and sadden you, but perhaps it will help us be ready for the next challenge that nature throws at us.