There is just one thing that could have made Debora MacKenzie’s new study of the Covid-19 pandemic more complete, authoritative and convincing, and that would have been to wait another five years before writing it. As MacKenzie makes clear in her acknowledgments, though, this is a “crash” book, written at breakneck speed, for a moment when there is a massive demand for knowledge about a particular issue.
So it’s perhaps just as well that MacKenzie is a journalist, used to tight deadlines, who has written on public health issues for New Scientist magazine for 36 years; and indeed it’s difficult for any fellow journalist not to feel a deep professional respect, tinged with awe, for the sheer depth of knowledge and expertise she brings to what is her first book, and for the fast-paced, well-structured and highly accessible style in which she tells the Covid-19 story.
Essentially, MacKenzie’s book does three things. First, it describes in detail the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic; and here, MacKenzie’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the national and international systems and networks in place to deal with epidemics, and of the Geneva-based World Health Organisation which seeks to co-ordinate the global response, offers us a breathtaking insight into exactly what happened in China during the early weeks of the outbreak, as well as comprehensively demolishing many of the rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus. MacKenzie is also minutely well-informed about the failures of the Chinese authorities in dealing with the early phase of the pandemic; although given how little was known about the virus at the start, she also wonders whether western governments would have responded much more effectively, at that early stage.
MacKenzie then sets the current Covid-19 epidemic in its historical context, dismissing modern anti-vaxxers as a privileged generation who have never had to watch their children die of the infectious diseases that historically killed off half of all human infants before the age of five. Indeed, her knowledge of historic and recent viral outbreaks – SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, flu – is so comprehensive that the narrative sometimes almost disappears in the avalanche of detail she is able to provide, and the arguments become slightly repetitive.
In the end, though, as she reaches her conclusions, MacKenzie’s prescription for avoiding future pandemics could hardly be clearer. Above all, we need to learn the lessons of Covid-19, which has so far let us off relatively lightly in terms of mortality and system collapse, but has cruelly exposed both the environmental stresses that lead to ever more dangerous viral collisions between animal and human populations, and the fragility and lack of resilience of many of our key survival systems, in a tightly networked world.
She advocates for the role of government, dismisses market solutions as inadequate to support the essential development of vaccines, anti-viral drugs, and new antibiotics, and – above all – insists that we need to not attack international bodies such as the WHO, but to strengthen them, and conclude verifiable global treaties against the pandemic threat, as we have against nuclear proliferation and ozone layer destruction.
MacKenzie acknowledges, of course, that this outcome currently seems unlikely, in an age of ever-more-strident nationalist grandstanding from world leaders, often matched by rising xenophobia on the ground. MacKenzie’s hope, though, is that Covid-19 will have delivered the kind of shock to our global system that will bring not only more pandemic preparedness in coming years, but also the political change necessary to sustain and strengthen our global systems for the protection of life on earth, in the longer term. And in that hope, most of us here on our crowded planet, at this time of crisis, will surely join her.
Covid-19 - The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One, by Debora MacKenzie, The Bridget Street Press, 305pp, £18.99
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