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Book review: ‘Covid-19’ by Debora MacKenzie


In one of the first books about Covid-19, journalist MacKenzie argues convincingly that the world was woefully unprepared for the pandemic it had been warned was coming, time and time again.

How much can a book tell you about a pandemic when we are still in the midst of it, with knowledge about the virus, the disease it causes, and its aftereffects building day by day? As it turns out, more than enough to justify its publication.

‘Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One’ (The Bridge Street Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780349128351) avoids laying all blame at the feet of a specific party or grasping at predictions about how the pandemic will play out. Instead, it expertly recounts the past few decades of viral outbreaks, how a coronavirus came to cause the worst pandemic in a century, whether we will be pummelled by another in the future (spoiler: we will), and what governments must do to prepare for when that time comes.

Although many of the conclusions of ‘Covid-19’ will be vaguely familiar to anyone who follows the news, MacKenzie equips the reader with a far more thorough understanding of Covid-19 and other emerging diseases than could be gleaned from news coverage. Admirably, she does this in fewer than 250 pages.

The main message of ‘Covid-19’ is that most countries (including the UK) were scandalously ill-prepared for a virus with pandemic potential. This seems to have been painfully obvious to anyone in the emerging diseases community.

“The only real surprise when Covid-19 finally hit was the sheer extent to which most governments simply had not listened to the warnings,” MacKenzie writes. Governments were warned – a high-level UN panel was told in 2016 that the world was underestimating the risk of something like a virulent respiratory pathogen – and when that virulent respiratory pathogen finally emerged, many continued to neglect preparing.

MacKenzie writes with authority, clarity, and just the right amount of detail for the curious non-biologist. A chapter-long exploration of zoonoses in bats is particularly fascinating. Despite frequent jokes about “bat soup” being responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, it is very difficult to catch a virus from a bat. Many people regularly consume bats without falling sick. It takes serious dedication to catch a virus from a bat, with one possible route through which the Covid-19 virus may have jumped to humans being the use of powdered bat faeces in eye drops as a traditional remedy.

The strange reality we are living through will be told again and again in the years to come. ‘Covid-19’ may have been written and published quickly, but MacKenzie’s familiarity with emerging diseases and her clear focus on the context of the pandemic means that it doesn’t feel flimsy or opportunistic.

It is probably not a book anyone will be reading in five years’ time to understand how the pandemic played out – and MacKenzie makes no pretence that it will be – but it is an excellent source of information for contextualising the pandemic right now.

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