The publishing industry has many vulnerabilities when it comes to a pandemic like the recent one. It was already fighting against the onslaught of social media platforms, then trying to decide whether or not to plunge into digital publishing – totally or partially. And then came Covid-19, with the unravelling effects of the lockdown on the industry. Yet, judging from the variety of popular science books that have come out on Covid-19, the publishing world seems to havefought well despite these comorbidities. It’s certainly alive, if not kicking.
Most of these are “crash books” – “written in a short time at junctures when a lot of people very much want to know about a certain issue…written by people who just happen to know a bit about the topic and poised to go”, in the words of Debora MacKenzie, whose book Covid-19: The pandemic that never should have happened and how to stop the next one came out in June 2020. But some books have managed to go beyond the superficiality of talking merely about the structure of coronavirus or the epidemiologic statistics, and ask some hard questions. That’s the silver lining.
A quick glance at the books on Covid-19, from the easiest to the abstruse, certainly provides a sense of variety. The easiest is probably the superbly illustrated Coronavirus: A book for children by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson and Nia Roberts, meant for children below 12. Children have been at the receiving end, with adults suddenly appearing unsure. They have been told to do this and not do that, but not told why.
The book talks to children about this new horror in the least horrific terms, doing well to discuss how they should share domestic space with others during lockdown and the work-from-home regime of their parents.
Then there are the books answering the frequently asked questions that have peppered our conversations in the past few months. What is it about this new virus that is so dangerous to humans? What should we do when no one seems to know what to do?
Michael Mosley, a BBC presenter and a medical practitioner, has put together these modern-day catechisms in his Covid-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus and the race for the vaccine. Every book in this category has something unique about it – perhaps a Darwinian mechanism is at work here, hinting towards the robustness of the publishing industry.
For example, Mosley’s book has a lucid – and illustrated – discussion on how the seating arrangement in a restaurant or in a call center has affected the spread of SARS-Cov-2. But the book peters out into a run-of-the-mill discussion on intermittent fasting as a method to boost immunity, presumably a pet topic of the author’s.
It appears that publishers are taking the lead in commissioning books on the subject. Penguin Random House India has come up with the impressive The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know about the Global Pandemic, by Swapneil Parikh, Maherra Desai and Rajesh M Parikh. It goes into some details about the virus, and delves into the history of pandemics as well.
The chapter on “Dos, Don’ts and Myths: is particularly useful, as is the chapter on “Conspiracies and Misinformation”, which answers whether SARS-Cov-2 is man-made or not (a resounding “no”), or if there’s a 5G link. The book also touches on the disastrous economic aspects of the pandemic, before turning to a more hopeful outlook on the research on new medicines, and how artificial intelligence can be useful for this purpose.
Delving into the science
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are several self-published books on this pile. Sidney Osler’s Coronavirus: Outbreak, all the secrets revealed about the Covid-19 pandemic, which professes to be a “Complete rational guide of its evolution, expansion, symptoms and first defence”, is more of an elaborate instruction manual than of a popular science book.
One of the best books in the category of explainers is Understanding Coronavirus by Raul Rabadan, a computational biologist at Columbia University. (Try not to read it on the Kindle, because you will miss out on subtleties of the colour-coded illustrations.) Anyone who is slightly more curious than usual will not be disappointed. The book is not daunting either, despite the equations in the footnotes (or, perhaps, because of the equations that make things clearer.) Even difficult concepts such as the phylogenetic tree of coronavirus come alive.
One chapter, titled “How is the coronavirus changing?” takes the reader on a Darwinian trip into the mutations and recombinations of the coronavirus, in more lucid terms than I have found anywhere else. The last chapter of this book provides a detailed comparison with seasonal influenza.
The book by MacKenzie, a veteran science journalist, who has written numerous articles for The New Scientist, points out an interesting, almost paradoxical, feature of our complex society. It appears that in theory, the more complex a system becomes, the less it depends on individuals. But the reality is just the opposite, and the current pandemic has shown that individuals matter, in particular the essential workers of our society.
MacKenzie goes deeper than others into questions of what really caused the pandemics, and writes that “by the 1960s, we had largely defeated the old infectious diseases with prosperity and vaccines, whereupon we disinvested in the kind of public health needed for infectious disease.”
This view keeps coming back like sonar echoes as we probe other books which go deeper into the question of the emergence of the virus. As for the future, she is more cautious than the upbeat view expressed in Parikh’s book, and says that “profit-driven markets can do wonderful things, but not everything...we need to stop relying on them to do what only governments can do and develop products we desperately need for the public good.”
MacKenzie also wades into the political effects of the pandemics, and warns of “tribalism and xenophobia” because of the tendency to apportion blame to ethnic groups, merely because they are “different”. This, she says, may end up making authoritarian ideologies popular, especially in countries “that merely had more infectious disease in the past than in places that didn’t” because of what she call the “behavioural immune system”.
(Not) learning from history
Although Mark Honigsbaum’s The Pandemic Century came out a few months before the Covid-19 breakout, it is still a very relevant book because it gives a proper historical background to the appearance of this particular coronavirus. In the very first chapter, we get to learn how the world has forgotten the words of René Dubos, who had isolated the first commercial antibiotic in 1939, and prophesied that complete freedom from disease was a “mirage” and that “at some unpredictable time and in some unforeseeable manner nature will strike back”. These words of caution against the prevailing medical hubris (Dubos had compared man to “sorcerer’s apprentice” in this regard) has been completely ignored.
Honigsbaumeven takes the medical scientists to task, writing:
“[B]y alerting us to new sources of infection and framing particular behaviours as ‘risky’, it is medical science – and the science of epidemiology in particular – that is the ultimate source of these irrational and often prejudicial judgments. No one would wish to deny that better knowledge of the epidemiology and causes of infectious diseases has led to huge advances in preparedness for epidemics, or that technological advances in medicine have brought about immense improvements in health and well-being; nevertheless, we should recognise that this knowledge is constantly giving birth to new fears and anxieties.”— 'The Pandemic Century', Mark Honigsbaum
Often, the hubris of scientists make them blind to the fact that every new terror virus has attacked us with unknown aspects. He explains how every epidemic “sparks much retrospective soul-searching about ‘known knowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’”, but still cannot seem to teach us to avoid blind spots. Dubos’s advice for scientists “to avoid pride of intellect and guard against any illusion or pretense as to the extent and depth of what he knows” are pertinent.
Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society, which is the result of a course he has put together at the Yale University, goes one step further in locating the source of this hubris, namely, in the mindset of post-World War II medical science practitioners in the USA. Since the war was won with the help of scientists, it was thought that science could also help totally eradicate all infectious diseases from the face of the Earth, with the double pronged approach of medicine and vaccination.
This attitude, for example, led the US Surgeon General William H Stewart to pronounce in 1969 that the time had come to “close the book on infectious diseases”. Such complacency, or “arrogance” as Snowden labels it, has been the real cause of the recent pandemics, which have hit us unprepared.
According to Snowden, “such a degree of unpreparedness resulted from a combination of circumstances, which are still in effect today”. His words are categorical: “One is the treatment of health as a commodity in the market rather than as a human right.” Citing the example of the Ebola epidemic, he writes: “Well before Ebola erupted, market decisions prevented West Africa from having tools to confront emergency. Pharmaceutical companies prioritise treating the chronic diseases of industrialised nations, where profits are to be made, over the development of drugs and vaccines for the infectious diseases of the impoverished. As a result, tools to deal with diseases like Ebola lag behind in the pipeline.”
A similar line of thinking is to be found in what is probably the most in-depth book that has come out on this topic, The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s gone wrong and how to stop it happening again, written by Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of Lancet. This tour-de-force dissects the history of the current pandemics, and finds that most countries (except for Germany) paid no heed to WHO’s clarion call, particularly in the month of February 2020, and thereby failed to control the spread.
Horton not only lambasts the UK government, but also castigates the British scientific advisors for luxuriating in “elite insouciance”. He blames scientists who “did not explicitly consider alternatives to their dominant expectations”, suffering, in his words, “from a disabling group-think”. The politicians who gobbled up advice from scientists are also to blame, he argues, because “the task of politicians is not merely to accept the advice they are given…they have an obligation to probe, to analyse and to question.”
This is the only book that deals with the question of immunity passports and surveillance on cards. In his opinion, “immunity passports will…stigmatise those who are not immune, creating a divided society”, and “accelerate” our society towards Michel Foucault’s “panopticon” nightmare of a police state.
Horton cautions against over-optimism that medicines and vaccines for Covid-19 will take us back to normal. Echoing MacKenzie – and others – he goes to the heart of the matter, the real virus: “[t]he intense version of capitalism that has emerged over the last forty years has weakened something essential in the social fabric of our societies.” And that “publics will no longer view disease as a pathology of the body. We will see disease as a pathology of the society.”
He goes on to mention the austerity measures that have been forced upon several countries in the name of structural adjustments in the recent past that have weakened public health funding. This was also been pointed out by Lourie Garrett in her The Coming Plague: Newly emerging diseases in a world out of balance.
Horton wants us to be vigilant, and “retain our capacity to be horrified by the incompetence by governments, the corruption of entrusted power and the collusion of elites.” How do we change our society? He quotes Herbert Mercuse, who said that tolerance “protects the already established machinery of discrimination”, and writes: “If the hope after Covid-19 is for a more humane society – a worthy hope given the devastation this virus has wreaked – we must work hard to cultivate our sensibility for intolerance.”
It might appear that Horton’s strong words fit with the freedom of speech enjoyed by the Western liberal countries. But then freedom of speech is more espoused in nations where it is futile, where protesters are allowed to have their say because that is the safest way to drain their energy.
One aspect missing from the books [L2] published so far is a comparison of the approaches to combat Covid-19 adopted in different countries. A discussion on the Cuban strategy [L3] –unrelenting monitoring of every family in the country for signs of the illness – is a glaring omission, although it could be instructive. A detailed (and unbiased) account of the controversies surrounding the various medicines or treatments that are being tried out would be helpful too – though developments might quickly overtake what has been written.
And not only scientists. [L4] We need historians, economists, sociologists to gather their thoughts and illuminate us, because, to quote Hunter yet again, “the science and politics of Covid-19 became exercises in radical dehumanisation”. This might be a point of no return for our civilization, and we need to think more, read more, argue more, and publish more in-depth books, so that our discussions remain informed and do not get hijacked by hot button outbursts in social media.
BimanNath is an astrophysicist, science writer and a novelist. He works at the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.