We may never find the exact origin of the pandemic that shut down 2020 and this year, but you can bet there will be many books on the subject.
A couple are out already, early attempts at history that’s still happening. Author Lawrence Wright has released “The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid,” and Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta co-authored “Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History.”
Both books seem determined not to judge, but rather tell the story of what transpired over the last couple of years from as many points of view as possible.
Wright is a meticulous reporter, and he says in the introduction of “The Plague Year” this is probably his last book. He’s had a good run. “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief” was a no-holds-barred deep dive into a religion that seems to attract Hollywoodites. Besides winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” his meticulously documented account of Osama bin Laden’s early life, expulsion from Saudi Arabia, time in Sudan, the growth of Al-Qaeda and his stated plans to attack the U.S., was what finally helped me understand what happened that awful day in 2001. And “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State” filled in even more holes in the 9/11 story.
If you want a simple, straightforward account of what we know of the Covid pandemic, Wright’s “The Plague Year” is the choice. Some of what he writes was excerpted in The New Yorker earlier this year, and Wright takes us on an exhaustive journey that winds through the Wuhan markets, the bowels of the Chinese government, the rise of the vaccine in the U.S. and finally into the White House itself. He points out the speed behind the creation of the virus vaccines had a lot to do with the fact that scientists were all ready to move quickly, knowing this would happen sooner or later. And Wright suggests President Donald Trump adopted an attitude that might have cost him reelection.
“Some anti-maskers called the coronavirus a hoax; others believed it wasn’t all that dangerous,” Wright explains. “But the image of the maskless president animated his base. Maskless, he appeared defiant, masculine, invulnerable, whereas to wear a mask would be caving in, being weak; it might ‘send the wrong message’ and hurt his chances of reelection. Eventually he would come to believe that people wore masks to show their disapproval of him.
“In part because of the president’s courtship of the virus, millions of people followed his example, giving the pandemic access to new communities, infecting new families, endangering healthcare workers, prolonging unemployment, sabotaging efforts to open the economy and causing untold numbers of people to die.”
The Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic is the subject of Abutaleb and Paletta’s “Nightmare Scenario,” and they dig exhaustively into what the White House did and didn’t do.
They agree his dismissal of the pandemic didn’t help his chances for reelection. “Trump created an environment that preyed on a population with diminished trust. One of the biggest flaws was that no one was in charge of the response,” Abutaleb and Paletta write. “Ultimately, there was no accountability, and the response was rudderless.”
They show how at least part of the White House response, or lack of it, was guided by the fact that the pandemic reached our shores at the beginning of a tough election year. They speculate Trump’s response could have been key to his being denied a second term. They wound up speaking to people in his administration, some who prayed their boss would take Covid-19 more seriously, others who said had he recommended wearing masks and showed some humility, the election might have gone his way.
“In the end, the election wasn’t close,” they write. “Suburbs all over the country broke in Biden’s direction. Trump’s support among older Americans — those most at risk from dying from the virus — also slipped, delivering the final blow. Even though he had run his campaign on a promise to return everything to normal, the majority of Americans thought that Biden was best positioned to deliver that.”
As we are all learning, there will probably be no “return to normal,” whatever the hell “normal” was. But the plague period will be one or two years we do remember, and these two books are important first glimpses into the pandemic that shut down the world.
As the years pass, people’s recollections will change, and having these volumes appear so close to the event itself makes them even more valuable.