Book Review: The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid by Lawrence Wright

In his account of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the New Yorker writer reports the killers are off the leash

Lawrence Wright (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The pandemic has not ended.

Despite understandable public eagerness – even desperation – to "return to normal," the final outcome of the coronavirus plague remains undetermined. Although the decreasing U.S. numbers of cases and deaths reflect encouraging progress, a glance at the news from India or the worldwide numbers – in mid-May, still spiking – makes it clear that the extended "plague year" remains unfinished.

That means that Lawrence Wright's informative and insightful The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid recounts one extended period in an ongoing crisis, with the conclusion still very much in doubt. Wright, after 30 years at The New Yorker, is an extraordinary reporter, and though little in the book will be surprising for anyone who has closely followed the news, having it all recounted, chronologically and in one place (with an actual index!), will make the book indispensable as a coronavirus compendium. Very little escapes Wright's notice, and he is adept at placing the ongoing story in an enlightening context.

Consider just a selection: The first worrisome signs of a "pneumonia of unknown cause" in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019; the early uncertainty in D.C., aggravated by President Trump's willful ignorance ("It's going to be just fine"); the inadequate and often obstructive federal response; the aggressive physical effects of this particular coronavirus; the encouragingly rapid development of vaccines; the January 2020 (first!) Trump impeachment trial (while Centers for Disease Control official briefings began); the criminal lack of preparation or response from the administration; the "testing fiasco" compounded by Trump's explicit opposition; the early and terrifying New York outbreak (stemmed, in part, by thousands of incoming volunteer medics); the widespread profiteering on inadequate equipment supplies; the phony hydroxychloroquine and bleach cures; the Fox News disinformation ... etc., etc.

Very little escapes Wright’s notice and he is adept at placing the ongoing story in an enlightening context.

Beyond the contemporary chronology, the book helpfully places the pandemic within the long historical context of earlier plagues: the sixth century "Justinian" epidemic, the 14th century Black Death, the 1918 Flu, and more recent outbreaks that should have provided ample warning but went unheard. Wright relies intermittently on retired Johns Hopkins medical historian Gianna Pomata and her commentary on the historical plagues as well as the current devastation in her Italian home city, Bologna. They discuss the immediate and long-term effects of pandemics, leading Wright to speculate that "we are at another inflection point, when society will make a radical adjustment, for good or ill."

Pomata is a central example of Wright's personalization of the story, including his family history and even his own childhood experience of temporary paralysis after a tetanus injection (which initiated his lifelong interest in the subject). He profiles a range of political players, scientists, medical officials, and health care workers as both subjects and sources who played crucial roles at all levels of the crisis. We have not yet sufficiently honored those who have been in the front lines of the fight against the virus, to which many gave their lives. The Plague Year is dedicated "In memory of those no longer with us."

The illuminating profiles include, among others, vaccine researchers Barney Graham and Jason McLellan; Bellevue Hospital doctor Barron Lerner; Univ. of Virginia professor and anesthesiologist Ebony Hilton; and from the Trump Administration, National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger and Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx. The latter two figures (and important sources) are portrayed more sympathetically than one might anticipate from media headlines, but Wright does his best to describe their conflicted roles and to suggest that they felt obligated to do the best they could to fight the pandemic, despite the political compromises. Some readers will disagree.

Of Trump himself, Wright is unsparing, recounting in detail his ongoing negligence as well as his cynical, corrupt determination to wish the pandemic away for fear that even acknowledging it – let alone acting effectively against it – would endanger his reelection. "For most of Trump's presidency," he writes, "a buoyant economy made its own powerful argument in his favor. But the Covid contagion broke the economy, and there were no other standards to raise. The country was drowning in acrimony and grief. Trump's inner demons had been set loose. The killers were off the leash."

But The Plague Year is by no means a polemic; instead, melancholy and disappointment pervade the book, in part because Wright refuses to see Trump independently of the voters and public that elected him. "What Trump proved to us is that we weren't the people we thought we were; the things we said we cared about weren't the things we really cared about." It's true that Trump does not represent a voting majority; nevertheless, far too many Americans – and apparently a majority of those who define themselves within the ideological category of "white" – see themselves in him and regard his vainglory, narcissism, greed, casual racism, and will-to-power as admirable traits, worthy of imitation.

That also means that many Americans have followed Trump in dismissing the plague as exaggerated or even fake, and in refusing to take basic steps that would have mitigated many of the pandemic's worst consequences. "It is dispiriting to think that employing the simple precaution of wearing a mask could have avoided much suffering, death, impoverishment, and grief, had it been widely implemented from the start." Trump's disdain for such precautions has since become doctrinal among a majority of Republicans, and – despite the declining cases – threatens to leave even vaccinated people vulnerable to virus variants or another spike in infections, perhaps to return in the fall.

Wright is also sharply critical of the response of the Chinese government, which has repeated its reflexive pattern of secrecy and non-cooperation, and continues to obstruct scientific inquiry and thereby obscure the initial causes of the outbreak. He raises the possibility that a laboratory error or contagion could have been an initial vector of the Wuhan infections. As things stand, we'll likely never know, making it even harder to prevent the next outbreak.

Wright's conversations with Pomata are thoughtful and informative but not very reassuring. We are a species accustomed to cultural inanition and resistant to dramatic social changes, and we seldom allow such changes unless forced. A plague can certainly be one of those forces; global warming, which has also indirectly amplified the pandemic, is likely to be another.

As it happens, Wright has visited this territory before, in The End of October, his apocalyptic thriller published early in 2020. That novel is more pessimistic than The Plague Year, partly due to the demands of the genre and partly a consequence of Wright's own underestimate (he says here) of "the willingness of people to isolate themselves" as well as of the welcome resilience of the food chain and the overall economy. Although his fictional timing (soon to be a Ridley Scott movie near you) was astonishing, Wright rejects any claim to fictional "clairvoyance." "The reason the novel parallels reality," he notes, "is that I read the playbooks, I watched the tabletop exercises, I talked to the experts."

All excellent preparation for The Plague Year. But any extended meditation on the material Wright has assembled here, not to mention the intractable resistance of millions of people to even modest adjustments in their accustomed "lifestyles" – for any reason, including self-preservation – makes it difficult to be optimistic about our collective ability to confront the next pandemic ... or the likely extension of this one. As this book will forcibly remind its readers – who almost certainly aren't the ones who most need reminding – we aren't the people we thought we were; the things we say we care about aren't the things we really care about.

The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid

by Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 336 pp., $28

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