HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksA veteran journalist explains America’s devastating pandemic

A veteran journalist explains America’s devastating pandemic

The Plague Year. By Lawrence Wright. Knopf; 336 pages; $28. Allen Lane; £20

IN APRIL 2020 Lawrence Wright published a novel, “The End of October”, about a global pandemic and the political meltdown and mass fatalities it causes in America. Health officials struggle to enforce lockdown rules in the face of conspiracy theorists, feuding rivals, outraged libertarians and a useless president who, washing his hands of the calamity, foists it onto his deputy, a former governor and radio-show host. Then Mr Wright set about writing the true story of America and covid-19. It is not that different.

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A veteran journalist at the New Yorker, who wrote a bestselling account of the origins of the 9/11 catastrophe, Mr Wright makes no great claim for his prescience. Plagues, after all, have been common throughout history. And a two-year pandemic of the deadly SARS disease, which emerged in China in late 2002 and spread to several other countries, had raised the threat warning. It was only a matter of time before an even deadlier virus, taking advantage of teeming human populations, ravaged wildlife habitats and opaque government, jumped between species or escaped from a laboratory. According to a study published in 2019 by the Economist Intelligence Unit and others, no country was ready for it.

Still, the study’s authors considered America at least better placed than the rest. Its public-health institutions, especially the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were the world’s best. And under Barack Obama, who worried a lot about pandemics, the federal government had taken extra defensive steps. During the transition to the Trump administration, Mr Obama’s team handed over a long guide to combating a “pathogen of pandemic potential”. It included a breakdown of relevant capabilities across the federal agencies, and the order in which they should be brought to bear. So why, when Mr Wright submitted his manuscript in late 2020, had America performed so badly?

At the time, its death toll from covid-19 was 375,000; now it is 600,000. Among the most affected countries, only Italy and Britain had then lost a higher proportion of their populations, at least by the official counts (more recent modelling suggests death rates have been a lot higher in numerous other places). “The Plague Year” is Mr Wright’s account of how this happened.

He identifies three main reasons. First, China’s evasiveness and opacity mitigated America’s technological prowess. Had the CDC got the early access to the outbreak in Wuhan that it had requested, it would have pinpointed a crucial difference between the viruses that cause SARS and covid-19: the new one could be spread asymptomatically, which made it far more dangerous. As it was, the CDC did not understand that until late February 2020, by which time the virus was already raging in America.

Not that the CDC fully grasped its prevalence even then, having failed to develop an effective covid-19 test. This was the second reason for America’s plight. Weeks after many rich countries had launched mass testing, the CDC was still investigating why its test kit didn’t work. Many of the kits, it turned out, had been contaminated with the coronavirus at the “filthy” CDC laboratory where they were made. By the time South Korea had tested 65,000 people, America had managed to test only 500.

Having thereby lost control of the virus, America also failed to implement adequate social distancing and, in particular, mask-wearing. This ensured it fared worse not only than South Korea and other well-organised Asian countries, but also some European ones. The cause of this third fatal glitch was one Mr Wright had foreseen in his novel: the malignity of Donald Trump and incompetence of his administration.

Even Americans who are not in denial about that reality may struggle to remember the many proofs of it; the bloody insurrection on Capitol Hill that Mr Trump engineered in January has come to dominate the memory. Moreover his response to the crisis—the biggest test of his presidency—was often so unconscionable and bizarre that, as time passes, it seems almost incredible. In his characteristic style, Mr Wright provides many small sketches of people touched by covid-19—from whizzy scientists like Barney Graham (“six-foot-five, with a grey goatee and a laconic manner”), to victims like 96-year-old Jim Miller, a D-Day veteran who died of the disease in a cruelly mismanaged home for old soldiers. But the book’s main character is Mr Trump, and its main service is in weighing his responsibility for the disaster.

Devil take the hindmost

His efforts to purge Mr Obama’s legacy and his predilection for sycophants put America at a disadvantage from the start. The pandemic plan was ditched; the heads of the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, Robert Redfield and Alex Azar, were both inadequate. There was nonetheless a moment when it seemed Mr Trump might conceivably rise to the historic occasion. In a televised address on March 11th 2020 he acknowledged the pandemic’s gravity, recommended social distancing and called on the country to “put politics aside”. In Mr Wright’s telling, that moment lasted about five days.

Instead of taking charge of the crisis, Mr Trump told state governors they were on their own—and must fight it out in the red-hot global market for ventilators, masks and other kit. It was an unprecedented abnegation of federal authority, guaranteeing needless wastage and chaos. “Price is always a component,” Mr Trump told Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, after he complained that the federal government kept gazumping the state’s orders of masks and other equipment.

The unmasked man

Having cut the governors loose, Mr Trump began undermining their public-health efforts, in an almost psychopathically self-serving bid to politicise the pandemic. He talked up the miraculous properties of hydroxychloroquine, a quack cure peddled on Fox News. He denounced state lockdowns. By tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!”, he launched vigilantes onto the streets of those states. Some plotted to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, in what now looks like a dress rehearsal for the insurrection in Washington.

Mr Trump’s opposition to mask- wearing—he thought it made him look unmanly—made it a litmus test of partisan identification. This led to many needless infections and deaths. In Mr Wright’s view, he was even more directly responsible for some of them. Since all the guests were tested, he thinks Mr Trump the likeliest infection source of a “superspreader” event at the White House in October.

His leadership did not merely undercut America’s strengths. It also exacerbated its weaknesses. Partisan division was among the many pre-existing national conditions that the virus laid bare—a list that includes the hollowing of American manufacturing supply-chains; the disproportionate suffering of black Americans; chronic obesity; and extreme disparities in health-care quality. Of course, America’s encounter with covid-19 continues. Perhaps the most glaring deficiency of Mr Wright’s book is that it concludes just as America was on the brink of launching, from a faltering start, one of the world’s most impressive mass vaccination campaigns (an effort that owes much to the Trump administration’s stimulation of the development and supply of vaccines). Yet even with that hindsight it is hard to be optimistic about the country the pandemic exposed.

In his most hopeful moment, Mr Wright speculates that “perhaps covid-19 was the force that America needed—to be humbled, to reckon with itself, to once again attempt to create the democracy it had always intended to be.” But even before those words were published 74m Americans had voted to give Mr Trump another four years at the helm. And among the Republicans now jostling to succeed him are many lesser covid incompetents—such as Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, whose opposition to lockdown measures led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. Covid-19’s terrible cost to America is not only measurable in jobs and lives. Its other great toll is accountability.

Dig deeper

All our stories relating to the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also listen to The Jab, our podcast on the race between injections and infections, and find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus’s spread across Europe and America.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “On both its houses”

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