Book Review: ‘The Plague Year,’ by Lawrence Wright

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.”

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