Here we are — blurred-eyed, exhausted, Zoom-ed out and all-too-often even clueless what month it is, let alone day of the week. And yet the narrative now is that we are turning a corner, with officials in America optimistically pushing out the concept that we’re largely moving past COVID-19. Mask mandates are being cast aside, vaccines are now at your local CVS and almost all public common spaces will be back at full capacity soon, serving Samuel Adams and the idea of the old “normal.”
But are we really in the clear, in a more existential, non-magical thinking sense? Covid mutations persist. Pfizer, as it stands, can’t cover variations of the disease. Currently, many are looking back, mulling over the origins of the virus. From the outset, the established idea was that it originated from a so-called “wet market” in Wuhan, China. Now, the lab-leak theory is starting to gain adherents, if not credibility.
In “The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid,” Lawrence Wright doesn’t mull too much over that debate. For him, in his incredibly-crafted telling, it was institutions that failed us and the origin debate seems moot at this point.
Wright is an Austin, Texas-based writer — one who’s been on contract with The New Yorker since 1992. Among the magazine’s current staff writers, he stands out as one its best. He’s an earnest prober, with sober-minded curiosity.
His best work is arguably “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” (2006), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Another notable work that clings is “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” (2013). In the former, he razor-blades open and guts the events that led to the absurdity of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. In the latter, he peels back — like an onion — how seemingly smart people can be pulled into believing in a religion concocted by a crackpot science fiction writer (L. Ron Hubbard).
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hard to fathom how anyone, at this point, could sanely make the case that Trump handled this pandemic soundly, admirably. He botched what could have been his moment. As Wright recalls, there was Trump in February 2020 saying of Covid that “[i]t’s going to disappear.... One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” When SARS-CoV-2 didn’t, the former president suggested injecting bleach as a solution. Of course, that was an absurdity and Trump eventually contracted the disease himself and in a “Confederacy of Dunces” moment, he tore his mask off for the press, after being released from Walter Reed Hospital, on the balcony of the White House.
What he did achieve was becoming our greatest (post?) postmodernist American president — facts were meant to be debased for the sake of ego. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, comes off in “The Plague Year” as a voice of reason — one constantly at loggerheads with Trump and his administration.
“Covid-19 told us more about these two men [Trump and Fauci] than any other individuals in the country,” writes Wright. “For Fauci, science was a self-correcting compass, always pointed at the truth. For Trump, the truth was Play-doh, and he could twist it to fit the shape of his desire.”
Towards the end of the book, Wright quotes the CEO of the COVID-19 vaccine maker Moderna, Stéphane Bancel, as saying earlier this year: “We are going to live with this virus, we think, forever.”
Well-regarded scientists are starting to agree with that claim, as the publication Nature has pointed out, with many postulating that the coronavirus is an endemic disease at this point — akin to seasonal influenza and malaria.
Wright doesn’t wrap up with solace or closure in “The Plague Year.” How could you at this point? What he does provide is a well-wrought map covering the institutions and politicians that failed America during this stretch of the pandemic. But Wright crucially highlights those that also saved us — the first responders and the reasonable.
THE PLAGUE YEAR: America in the Time of Covid
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 336 pages, $28
Eric Allen Been is a writer and editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.