Pandemic in Print

Scott McLemee highlights the considerable number of current and forthcoming books flagged as pertinent to COVID-19 and its impact, or to pandemics more broadly.

November 20, 2020
 
 
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The offerings from university presses listed in the spring catalogs include a considerable number flagged as pertinent to COVID-19 and its impact, or to pandemics more broadly. In putting together the following overview, I haven’t aimed to be exhaustive but rather to identify books with a clear and direct emphasis on the coronavirus. At least as many more recent or forthcoming books sound tangentially relevant.

Publishers brought out their catalogs for the fall just about the time the lockdown got underway. Given the inevitable delays and changes of plan, it’s not too surprising that the listings for spring 2021 include a few titles from late this year. The descriptions below are of books with publication dates between September 2020 and May 2021 -- knock on wood.

To start on an optimistic note, John Rhodes’s How to Make a Vaccine: An Essential Guide for COVID-19 and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, March 2021) anticipates the development of "multiple COVID-19 vaccines" to be "designed, tested and produced at scale for global deployment." (All quoted material here is taken from publishers’ catalogs and websites.) The author will cover the basic principles of immunology as well as "a recent breakthrough in the development of genetic vaccines, which have never before been used in humans."

When COVID-19 emerged, some countries promptly set about tracking the possible spread of the virus from people known to be infected to anyone who had been in contact with them -- an urgent priority for containing the disease, assuming you do not believe in magic. The belated concern with contact tracing in the United States has looked to our portable digital devices as a possible shortcut. Susan Landau's People Count: Contact-Tracing Apps and Public Health (The MIT Press, February 2021) sounds like a sober estimate of the limited benefits of the current tech option: "GPS locates people outdoors -- but COVID-19 largely spreads indoors. Bluetooth does track people inside -- even through walls, which is not how COVID-19 spreads … Cellphone location data is not precise enough to trace close contacts." On the other hand, accumulating precise location data raises privacy concerns. "COVID-19 will not be our last pandemic," so "we need to get this essential method of infection control right."

Seizing the moment for all its teachable potential, Arup K. Chakraborty and Andrey S. Shaw survey the biomedical context of the present crisis in Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity (The MIT Press, September) -- explaining "concepts that provide the foundation for our public health policies" such as "how viruses emerge to cause pandemics, how our immune system combats them, and how diagnostic tests, vaccines, and antiviral therapies work." Readers will become "informed participants in debates about how to create a more pandemic-resilient world."

If only knowledge had a better advantage over the combined powers of irresponsible authority and wishful thinking. Martin Halliwell has plenty of both to bring into evidence in American Health Crisis: One Hundred Years of Panic, Planning, and Politics (University of California, May 2021): "U.S. health care is often hailed as the best in the world, yet the public health emergencies of today often echo the public health emergencies of yesterday," such as the malign neglect during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. “Despite the elevation of health care as a human right throughout the world," the book stresses that "vulnerable communities in the United States continue to be victimized by structural inequalities across disparate geographies, income levels, and ethnic groups."

John Fabian Witt considers some of the same histories (and failures) in American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19 (Yale University Press, October). He "traces the legal history of epidemics, showing how infectious disease has both shaped, and been shaped by, the law." The product: "legal approaches to public health have been liberal for some communities and authoritarian for others." Questions raised in the past still hang in the air: "What is the relationship between individual liberty and the common good? What is the role of the federal government, and what is the role of the states? Will long-standing traditions of government and law give way to the social imperatives of an epidemic? Will we let the inequities of our mixed tradition continue?"

Other volumes participate more directly in assessing how public policy regarding the pandemic is taking shape. Scott L. Greer, Elizabeth J. King, André Peralta-Santos and Elize Massard da Fonseca, the editors of Coronavirus Politics: The Comparative Politics and Policy of COVID-19 (University of Michigan Press, April 2021), bring together contributions from more than 30 authors "versed in politics and public health." They assess "health policy decisions, interventions and the implemented social policies" based on "their expertise and global comparative scholarship," while engaging in structured conversations across the book.

In another edited collection, COVID-19 and World Order: The Future of Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation (Johns Hopkins University Press, September), Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin present analyses of the pandemic’s global impact by "international experts in public health and medicine, economics, international security, technology, ethics, democracy and governance."

While altogether less prestigious than any of those fields, the discipline of criminology also deserves a place at the table of public discourse on pandemics. Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw’s Criminal Contagion: How Mafias, Gangsters and Scammers Profit From a Pandemic (Oxford University Press, April 2021) considers how the coronavirus has created exciting new opportunities for making a crooked buck: "Unscrupulous fraudsters are touting fake remedies to desperate people: counterfeit drugs and illicit wildlife used in traditional medicine. Social distancing and lockdowns have seen online financial transactions and cyber-communication and -operations replacing or supplementing physical shipments and interactions, again affording new opportunities for fraudsters and cyber-criminals."

Also, it would seem that "some elites have capitalized on the pandemic for personal or political gain." Say it isn’t so!

The year thus far feels like its own decade -- so a collection of writings from last spring seems already halfway to being a historical document. With A World Out of Reach: Dispatches From Life Under Lockdown (Yale University Press, November), Meghan O’Rourke, editor of The Yale Review, collects "for us and for posterity … the arresting voices of poets, essayists, scholars, and health care workers" as they responded in the first weeks of the pandemic. Culling pieces from the Review “ranging from matters of policy and social justice to ancient history and personal stories of living under lockdown,” the anthology presents "a first draft of one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history."

In late 2019, Christopher Schaberg toured an airport that had just opened near New Orleans. His Grounded: Perpetual Flight … and Then the Pandemic (University of Minnesota Press, December) "blends journalistic reportage with cultural theory and philosophical inquiry" in a before-and-after account, describing "the broad cultural landscape of empty airports and grounded planes" that became one of the most striking manifestations of COVID’s impact. The book also looks ahead to "what parts of commercial flight are almost certainly relics of the past."

The contributors to Make Shift: Dispatches From the Post-Pandemic Future (The MIT Press, March) have an even broader remit to speculate on what comes next. An anthology of science-fiction short stories edited by Gideon Lichfield, it takes an almost defiantly upbeat approach, envisioning “how science and technology -- existing or speculative -- might help us create a more equitable and hopeful world after the coronavirus pandemic.” After this nightmare, we need lessons on how to daydream.

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