Book Review: The Plague Year

Things I learned from a book about America dealing with a pandemic

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

eal leaders rise up during a crisis.

Focused on how America–and Donald Trump–responded to the biggest global event in the year 2020, the Plague Year is a retrospect of why America responded the way it did.

It also answers questions on why.

Why did more Americans die?

Why did Trump believe that masks were an option?

Why did American public health experts failed to stop the contagion early?

To write this book, Lawrence Wright conducted hundreds of interviews. He also did a deep dive into history.

(Pandemics are major turning points in history, as you will learn from reading The Plague Year).

Book cover from Goodreads

The Plague Year: America in the time of COVID is an example of great journalism.

The narrative is based on stories culled from multiple sources, including a medical historian, several public health and infectious disease experts, senators, and an ex-deputy national security adviser.

Here are some history lessons I’ve picked up:

No one was prepared for this pandemic.

America was. It even had a playbook. But various events occured and decisions not made, which contributed to more than 600,000 deaths in the US.

China’s refusal to share critical information and uncooperative stance at the start of the pandemic didn’t help infectious disease experts at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) prepare for the onslaught.

Trump — or the federal government–refused to help states with the provision of PPEs, purchase of ventilators, masks, and other non-medical means to prevent the spread of the virus.

“‘Unfortunately, political will for accelerating health security is caught in a perpetual cycle of panic and neglect…No country is fully prepared.’” Yet one country stood above all others in its readiness to confront a novel disease: the United States.”

Countries with experience dealing with a deadly pathogen acted fast.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and even Saudi Arabia were among the countries that acted quickly to contain local transmission of the disease. Why? They picked up lessons from dealing with SARs and MERs–a type of coronavirus that took lives. These countries responded with nonpharmaceutical interventions: social distancing and wearing of masks. These are all “traditional public health measures” that have proven effective.

Understanding history helps you deal with a pandemic.

Wright’s deep dive into history offers a deeper understanding on why a large portion of America refused to get vaccinated. Anti-vaccination movements have happened back when polio vaccines were first introduced in the 50s in the US. It was the same story in the 70s with the swine flu scare. As people believed more in conspiracies than science, anti-vaxxers emerged.

The contest between science and conspiracy would constantly undermine efforts to coordinate a national response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dealing with a pandemic takes political will, and trust in science.

Wright wrote, “Trump’s demonstrated failures of judgment and his repeated rejection of science make him the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge.”

The leader’s distrust in science and scientists is going to have dire consequences. Amid advice to even consider COVID as a “national threat,” Trump refused to acknowledge the gravity of his lack of confidence in science, which led him to refuse wearing a mask, him hosting a supposed superspreader event, and later him getting infected with COVID.

Economics also took precedence over science. There was hesitation to go on full lockdown. The pressure was too strong to not close businesses. Bureaucracy also crushed any efforts to act promptly (test kits produced proved ineffective) while the virus spread fast because people infected didn’t show symptoms.

America suffered the worst because of missteps, indecisiveness, sabotage, conspiracies, and misinformation that led to the Capitol attack by Trump’s loyal followers.

Covid-19 told us more about these two men than any other individuals in the country. For Fauci, science was a self-correcting compass, always pointed at the truth. For Trump, the truth was Play-doh, and he could twist it to fit the shape of his desire.

An ex-journalist. Teacher. Dad. Loves Guitar & Books. Writes when inspiration hits him.