It has become an embarrassingly well known fact that in the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the US was ranked No 1 in the world for preparedness for a pandemic (the UK, almost as embarrassingly, was No 2). Exactly how the US became the worst affected country in the world – more than 590,000 Americans have so far died from Covid – is now the subject of much finger-pointing debate.
Recently, Michael Lewis’s Premonition looked at a group of people in public health in the US who warned of what was coming but were ignored. Lawrence Wright, who is a master of knitting together complex narratives, takes a much broader view of the proceedings in The Plague Year.
Renowned for his careful research, Wright starts where the virus began: China. In all the noise and controversy that followed Donald Trump’s distraction tactic of referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus”, it can be forgotten that China wilfully withheld crucial information from the world for the better part of a month. And this at a stage when full disclosure could well have led to a far less catastrophic outcome, both in terms of mortality and the economy.
Nor does Wright shy away from identifying the compromised role of the World Health Organization, which took China’s word that there was no evidence of a communicable disease when in fact all the available evidence pointed at a new and lethal virus.
It’s important to restate these entirely avoidable failures because China has form in this field and there is every reason to believe that lessons have not been learned. The country is home to at least 147 species of bats, which in turn are home to hundreds of different coronaviruses. Both Sars and Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, are thought to have originated in bats and only a blind optimist would ignore the possibility of history repeating itself.
Unfortunately for America, it happened to be governed by a blind optimist when Covid hit its shores. When the virus was first identified in the US, Trump told the World Economic Forum in Davos that it was “under control”. “It’s going to be just fine,” he declared.
Trump actually made a couple of decent early decisions in shutting down travel from China and Europe, contrary to public health advice. But pretty much everything else he did seemed designed to sabotage his nation’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus.
He set individual states to bid against each other for PPE, as though they were procuring it from eBay. He ignored his government’s advice and almost certainly became a super-spreader of the virus within the White House. And, as Wright reminds us, he even went so far as to rally support for the fight against Covid by visiting a mask factory – while not wearing a mask!
He also appointed questionable officials who ended up running critical health institutions during the pandemic. Robert Redfield, for example, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a man who at one stage refused to support the use of condoms during the Aids crisis, insisting instead on sexual abstinence.
The CDC was slow to react to the news coming out of China and fluffed the development of a Covid test, again putting the US vital weeks behind the virus. Trump was largely oblivious to the incompetence he had instituted, mostly because he was incapable of hearing bad news and those who told him it tended not to stick around.
Very few government officials figures emerge with their reputations enhanced, yet some of them were in a genuine quandary. When your country is the midst of a rampaging pandemic, what do you do? Resign and whatever influence you might have is lost. Stay and you’re subsumed into the chaos and madness that Trump created all about him.
Wright is not unsympathetic to Deborah Birx, the former White House coronavirus response coordinator who featured in the excruciating news clip when Trump sought her agreement that injecting disinfectant might be the means of repelling infection. She doggedly tried to disseminate the message of social distancing, even as Trump insisted on holding virus-spreading political rallies.
And Matt Pottinger, the former deputy national security adviser, also fought a rearguard battle against those in charge. But this is not a book of heroes, apart perhaps from Barney Graham, the chief architect of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Instead, it’s a story about hubris and division, complacency and insularity, but most of all precariousness.
“Covid-19,” writes Wright, “is a harbinger.” He does not rule out the possibility that the virus accidentally escaped from one of the two labs in Wuhan that research bat coronaviruses. But even if it was not directly developed by humankind, it is very likely the result of human activity – intensive animal farming, encroachment on natural preserves and the effects of the climate crisis.
Human ingenuity has provided us with the vaccines that may yet bring this pandemic under control. But there is no reason to assume that we will be so fortunate next time.