Book review: Preventable, by Devi Sridhar

Public health expert Devi Sridhar became a social media sensation during the pandemic, despite the best efforts of the trolls, writes Elsa Maishman

Professor Devi Sridhar PIC: Edinburgh University/PA

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, has been one of the most sought-after expert voices in Scotland over the past two years. She has advised both the Scottish and UK Governments on pandemic policy, been interviewed countless times by news outlets in Scotland, the UK and across the world, and has kept up a steady presence on social media. In the early months of the pandemic, her popularity was such that Edinburgh University press office took her contact details of its website in a bid to stem the deluge, and when the pressure on Twitter got too much and she briefly deleted her account, she found her email inbox – and those of her colleagues – filled with messages from concerned members of the public asking what had happened to her.

Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World and How to Stop the Next One is a look back at the first year and a half the of the pandemic, from the first stirrings of concern in January 2020 to the pre-Omicron lull in mid-2021. As the name suggests, it also sets out a blueprint for what could be done differently when the next pandemic inevitably rears its ugly head. Woven through are quotes from experts, government officials and ordinary people, giving testimony of their experience of the pandemic in its different guises around the world. These snippets, while it is not always clear where they come from, humanise a story which is all too often told through numbers, in case rates and deaths, and they add to the easy accessibility of the book.

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Preventable compares the pandemic responses in countries across the world, from the initial “hammer” of fast, harsh lockdowns in China, to highly sophisticated contact tracing in South Korea, effective public health communication in Senegal, attempts at herd immunity in Sweden and elimination in Australia and New Zealand. Sridhar’s is a global perspective, and she lays out a fascinating menu of the different approaches taken. She also points out the overconfidence of rich countries in believing they would be able to combat the virus better than poor ones without effort, as well as the selfishness of buying up more than their fair share of global vaccine stock.

Preventable, by Devi Sridhar

The book describes a close working relationship with Nicola Sturgeon, who has been much more willing to take Sridhar’s advice than Boris Johnson, and even became her first client in a side endeavour as a personal fitness trainer. Johnson, on the other hand, is frequently likened to his fellow populists Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and the book seethes with a quiet anger and contempt at advice ignored, risks taken and lives lost. There is a sense of regret that Scotland isn’t an island which could have gone its own way, with its own Covid-19 strategy not marred by cases being brought across the border with England, an inability to introduce new furlough payments and a lack of control over protocol for international arrivals.

Sridhar’s self-confessed naivety about Scottish politics has occasionally got her into hot water, but it is hard to believe a male counterpart would have received the same level of abuse, especially from supposedly respectable figures with their own public platforms. Sridhar also reveals several sinister encounters with online trolls, including a visit from police after an anti-masker put out a request for her home address on social media, and being sent a package of white powder with a surgical face mask. Despite these incidents, and many more, the book shines with irrepressible and defiant cheer (and cheesy jokes).

Preventable is the latest in a long line of pandemic memoirs, many of which give readers a ringside seat to high-level scientific advice and decision-making, and most of which express regret at the poor decisions taken by governments. Sridhar’s work stands out as one of the most readable of these accounts. Through the last two years she has insisted on communicating through social media, even when this so often led her to be the target for criticism and abuse. It is clear she values communicating directly with ordinary people about public health, and Preventable is yet more proof that she is very good at it.

Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World and How to Stop the Next One, by Devi Sridhar, Viking, 432pp, £20