March 2020 was when the government placed the Philippines under near-total lockdown. The COVID-19 virus had landed. But we had no idea what was down the road and how, if there would be a pandemic, it would affect many facets of our lives and every sector of society. We were lost in the woods.
Three years hence and here we are, we have removed our face masks and face shields and are breathing easier, but so much pain still remains among those who lost loved ones and livelihoods.
I had been looking for a book on the COVID-19 pandemic that wreaked havoc on the world’s human population for three years and killed more than six million, a book with global breadth and that ran across various fields of expertise. I ordered “The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop it Happening Again,” (second edition) by Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet, a widely known medical journal begun in 1823, “the world’s highest impact academic journal.”
I got waylaid in the opening pages because of Horton pointing back to the plague that hit London as recounted in the book “A Journal of a Plague Year 1665” written by Daniel Defoe, who gave us “Robinson Crusoe,” a childhood classic. Defoe’s “Journal” is alive and well in cyberspace, looking ancient in its 1700s format. Indeed, 1665 was annus horribilis for the English. The influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 to 100 million humans was not a glimmer on Europe’s horizon then, except perhaps for the likes of Nostradamus.
In his introduction, Horton says he “was struck by the gap between the accumulating evidence of scientists and the practice of governments. As this space grew larger, I became angry. Missed opportunities and appalling misjudgments were leading to the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of citizens. These misjudgments were repeated during successive waves of the pandemic. There has to be a reckoning. This book is their story.”
Expectedly, Horton’s first chapter is “From Wuhan to the World” followed by “Why Were We Not Prepared?” Wuhan, a city in China, was the epicenter of the pandemic, from where the virus leaped unseen with their human carriers and infected the rest of the world. The first chapter is like an ER scene, where questions and answers rise with urgency. Or like a busy newsroom beating a deadline, with the what, where, when, how, and why begging for answers. The world was at war. The World Health Organization (WHO) and its bureaucracy loomed large like a battleship. But what was the nature of the enemy? How ready were the troops?
“The Chinese government owes the world a more detailed explanation of what took place in Wuhan,” Horton writes. “I don’t mind what we call it—an international inquiry, fact-finding mission, truth and reconciliation. I don’t seek blame. I don’t want punishment. I simply want to know what happened. Something happened.”
But in the next breath he says: “But whatever the questions about the Chinese government’s actions, I also believe we must say this—Chinese scientists and health workers deserve our gratitude. I know from my own knowledge of these dedicated individuals … They made it their duty to work with WHO when they were sure there was reason for global alarm.”
That said, Horton moves on like an investigative journalist, a detective, if you may, out to make sense of medical and scientific data, research papers as well as political pronouncements. (US President Trump gets it on the chin.) Impressive bibliography! Thank God for writers like Horton who made it their duty to write it all up in understandable prose, while scientists ensconced in freezing labs worked on a vaccine and medical practitioners sought for ways to save lives while counting the dead and the near-dead.
In the chapter “Science: The Paradox of Success and Failure,” Horton writes: “COVID-19 has revealed the astonishing fragility of our societies, our shared vulnerabilities. It has revealed our inability to cooperate, to coordinate, and to act together. Perhaps we cannot control the natural world after all. Perhaps we are not quite as dominant as we once thought … Something went badly wrong in the way many countries handled COVID-19.” And he gives example after example. He does not write from an ivory tower. The book reads like an action movie with philosophical underpinnings in some parts.
The chapter “The Politics of COVID-19” is something I had to read again. Horton cites major failures, among them, failure of political leadership, communication, and heeding the advice of scientists. This chapter might be discombobulating for some of our present leaders, legislators, and bureaucrats. “Towards the Next Pandemic” might add to their bewilderment.
In fine: “One lesson of COVID-19 is that every country must now begin a national conversation about how far it is willing to go—and how much the public is willing to pay—for a health system that can save lives when a pandemic arrives again. As it surely will.”
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