The Plague Year - America In The Time Of COVID

Written by John WestAsian Century Institute

A Book Review

Are you breathless, exhausted from trying to understand and digest the events of the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency? If so, you can be grateful that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright has written a wonderful account in new book, The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID.

As we all know, the US made a great hash of its management of COVID. Its performance has been one of the worst of all advanced countries with some 36 million cases and over 600,000 deaths. Write explores how this could be possible and some of the lessons?

Wright reminds us that, way back in October 2019, before most anyone had heard of COVID-19, a group of experts from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the The Economist Intelligence Unit developed the Global Health Security Index, which ranked some 195 countries in terms of their readiness for a pandemic. The US came in Number 1, the most capable, and the UK Number 2. Obviously, the brilliant experts who conducted this study could not imagine the capacity of these two great nations to bungle pandemic management.

And while the Trump administration seemed hopelessly unprepared for most of the challenges it faced, it was ironically very well prepared for COVID-19. It even conducted its own tabletop exercise (“Crimson Contagion") to examine how the US would respond if it actually faced such a pandemic. It involved various agencies of the federal government, states and territories, public health institutions, hospitals, and so on.

Here is the scenario. A traveler returns from China to Chicago. He has a dry cough. The next day his son goes to a rock concert. Six months later, close to 600,000 Americans are dead. It’s creepily prescient, and similar to what has occurred. Insightfully, the tabletop exercise showed how the government would behave, agencies not talking to each other, not knowing who was in charge, states in chaos not knowing where to turn, supply chains disrupted, the national storehouse depleted, businesses struggling with their employees marooned at home, and schools not sure whether they’re going to open or close.

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