THE PLAGUE YEAR
America in the Time of Covid
By Lawrence Wright
What happened? Our response to catastrophe is often bewilderment. This past year, much of the world found itself in a daze as an unknown virus appeared, rushed through countries and continents, and killed more than three and a half million people. Sixteen years ago, in another moment of earth-shattering destruction — the Indian Ocean tsunami — my family was taken from me, and I still find myself stunned. While our personal confusion about these unimaginable events will always linger, we are grateful for the clarity that comes from trying to comprehend the larger story.
Lawrence Wright’s “The Plague Year” is his testament to the year of Covid in America. The book chronicles what happened when, as he says, “the coronavirus slipped in on cat’s paws.” And it disentangles the country’s failure to properly respond to the pandemic — how was it possible that more than half a million people perished in the country with the most powerful economy in the world?
Wright — a staff writer at The New Yorker, where the article that “The Plague Year” is based on first appeared — has performed a virtuoso feat and given us a book of panoramic breadth. It’s quite different from his other definitive nonfiction book on an American cataclysm, “The Looming Tower,” which was tightly focused on the roots of Al Qaeda and the events that led to 9/11. In “The Plague Year” he ranges from science to politics to economics to culture with a commanding scrutiny, managing to surprise us about even those episodes we have only recently lived through and thought we knew well.
The story he tells is immediate and often piercingly intimate. We enter the core of America’s pandemic response — the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, Bellevue Hospital in New York City. This is a book filled with personalities and biographies and histories. It has conversations. Some are chilling. We read about George Fu Gao, head of China’s equivalent to the C.D.C., starting to cry as he tells his American counterpart, “I think we’re too late.” And this was in early January 2020, when the full impact of the virus was still two months away.
It is almost a truism to say that “natural” disasters are not caused by nature’s wanton acts alone. History, politics, society, economics and chance, all combine to put us in harm’s way. America was ranked the most prepared country in the world to confront an infectious disease. There was a playbook, simulations had been done. So, what happened?
“Covid-19 arrived in America at a vulnerable moment in the nation’s history,” observes Wright. And he unravels this precariousness.
There is no one villain here — individual or institutional. In the early months, it was mainly politics that allowed the virus to breach. There were intelligence failings to confirm a key piece of information about SARS-CoV-2 — that it spreads asymptomatically. Then early testing was shambolic. The esteemed public health institution, the C.D.C., was the sole producer of tests and could not scale up to the sheer numbers needed — as one of Wright’s characters put it, the agency was “like a microbrewery — they’re not Anheuser-Busch.” Worse still, this test was faulty because of contamination.
And then wearing masks became politicized. President Trump’s personal dismissal of masks (“He dared the virus to touch him, like Lear raging against the storm”) is one aspect of the grave collapse of leadership that Wright examines in this book. Personality mutates into the political, and he emphatically shows how the president acted not as a leader but as “a saboteur.”
Wright’s storytelling dexterity makes all this come alive — it’s worth noting that his most recent book was a novel that came out in early 2020, “The End of October,” which disturbingly imagined a devastating virus. Often, in “The Plague Year,” Wright uses an expert guide to walk us through these events in real time, a strategy that works brilliantly. In the White House, we have Matt Pottinger, deputy national security adviser, fluent in Mandarin, eyebrows a brighter blond than his hair. When it comes to the virus, he is consistently ahead of the curve — in stark contrast to an administration reluctant to accept the full measure of the threat. In his unflustered company we witness the high drama of decision-making about travel bans. When Pottinger arrives at a coronavirus task force meeting wearing an N95 mask he is told that, next time, “no masks will be worn.”
“The Plague Year” shows us what it really looks like when government fails during a disaster. I found the policy bedlam described jaw-dropping. With no national plan for this unprecedented national calamity, “the pandemic was broken into 50 separate epidemics and dumped into the reluctant embrace of surprised and unprepared governors.” Surreally, states bid against one another to buy ventilators on eBay and empty trucks arrive in places where protective gear is desperately awaited. The president dismisses criticism — the government is “not a shipping clerk.”
The terrible truth about disasters, one that emerges over and over, is that so much of the loss they bring is needless. Wright shows us that it was not just the virus that caused the plague. We see the lethal fallout of those early mistakes. In a veterans’ home in Holyoke, Mass., nearly a third of all residents lose their lives.
It fell to science and medicine to put up resistance to contagion. “The Plague Year” has lively exchanges about spike proteins and nonpharmaceutical interventions and disease waves. And Wright keeps us hooked with his details. Young doctors write their wills. Barney Graham, who designed the vaccine produced by Moderna, tells of his extreme terror about making a mistake. In a chapter titled “Thelma and Louise,” we see Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, going on road trips — crisscrossing the country eight times to promote masking to state governors, keeping a restraining eye on her colleague, Irum Zaidi, at the wheel (she has a thing for speeding). And turns out, the bogus idea that hydroxychloroquine can cure Covid originated as a mindless tweet from a mountain-dwelling white supremacist who also predicted that the coronavirus would destroy feminism. Who knew!
Disasters are, of course, unequally destructive — in terms of both economics and the threat to life. Even with the government spending unprecedented sums on aid, America was experiencing “wildly different pandemics,” Wright notes. Black people and Latinos contracted the virus at a rate three times greater than whites, partly reflecting the ways economic need could lead to greater exposure. Children from low-income households experienced a 60 percent drop in math learning. There was barely a change for those from better-off homes.
“The Plague Year” often digresses, but we are always pulled back to the larger story. So, for instance, the discussion of race in America after the killing of George Floyd points to structural inequalities that lie beneath the pandemic’s divergent affects across communities. There are some truly shocking examples of this. The Minneapolis police force joined with the county hospital in a yearslong study on a clinical trial of the sedative ketamine, which can cause heart stoppage, trying it out on crime suspects without their consent; African Americans accounted for a huge number of those enrolled. And Ebony Hilton, a young Black anesthesiologist, explains increasing infant mortality among Black people: “Should I have a child, it would actually be at more risk of dying than my mom’s child was.”
In an intriguing chapter on the origins of the virus — which includes mention of the increasingly discussed theory that the virus leaked from a laboratory — Wright observes that coronavirus is “a harbinger” of things to come. The threat of another new hazard setting upon a nation so flagrantly splintered is terrifying.
How will we remember the first year of this plague that goes on bringing ruin across the world? Wright tells us that history has mostly obliterated individual stories of those who died in our last big pandemic, the 1918 flu. In response, he tries to embed personal heartbreak into the broader narrative. Take Iris Meda. She was a recently retired nurse who grew up poor in Harlem — her first bed was an ironing board. Iris had plans for retirement: riding in a convertible for the first time, for one. But she never got the chance. She contracted Covid and her daughter, double-gloved and visored, held her as she died. In “The Plague Year,” Wright has laid a foundation for memorializing a terrible disaster, creating space for countless others like Iris’s daughter to keep asking what happened, and to grieve.