Here’s a sobering thought: the Covid-19 pandemic has been with us long enough that the first books written on the subject have already moved to the backlist. By July 2020, Hachette had published science journalist Debora MacKenzie’s Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One; four months later, Apollo’s Arrow by Nicholas A. Christakis (Little, Brown Spark), “a comprehensive and evidence-based rundown of the Covid-19 pandemic from December 2019 to August 2020,” per PW’s review, followed. More recent releases include The First Shots by Brendan Borrell (Mariner), which PW, in its starred review, deemed “a powerful behind-the-scenes look at Operation Warp Speed, the effort to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in record time.”
As the situation continues to evolve, so too does the breadth of coverage. Forthcoming books examine Covid-19 and its ramifications through memoir, historical perspective, poetry, and more.
The nightly applause for medical workers has long receded, but the challenges they face endure. In the debut memoir The Emergency (One World, Mar. 2022), ER doctor Thomas Fisher unpacks social injustices in the healthcare system, documenting a year of the pandemic spent working in the emergency room of a hospital on Chicago’s South Side. After spending a typical shift tending to “a jumble of sickness, violence, and Covid,” Fisher writes, he returns to his local supermarket on the majority-white North Side, where “women in $150 yoga pants load up on snacks.” The only sign of Covid’s existence is face coverings. “Straddling these two worlds makes me insane,” he continues. “Is this grocery store real, or is what I’ve experienced and seen in the hospital real? Because they cannot both be real. Or can they?” (See “System Update,” for our q&a with Fisher.)
In The Invisible Siege (Crown, Mar. 2022), epidemiologist Dan Werb leads readers through efforts to defeat viral epidemics, covering Hong Kong’s 1997 avian flu outbreak and MERS in Saudi Arabia, a tale that, much like Covid-19, occurs at “the intersection of politics and infectious disease,” Werb writes. He also details the steps medical workers have had to take during the pandemic to protect patients as well as their own lives and those of their colleagues. “The room itself had become a battle zone,” he reports of a pandemic-era ICU—“one where the risks of infection had reached the level of life and death. And like a soldier, Mark had to suit up, so that he wouldn’t be an easy target for the enemy. Preparations began before he entered each patient’s room.”
A Deeper Sickness by historians Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson (Beacon, Jan. 2022) reflects on the interconnected events of 2020, from the initial appearance of the virus through lockdowns, mask shortages, and the pandemic’s intersection with the Black Lives Matter movement. “We followed America as eyewitnesses to the tumult of the entire year,” the authors write. “Was there something in the character of the place, the bones of America, that made the layers of tragedy that unfolded in 2020 practically unavoidable?” Presented in a journal format, the book depicts how the pandemic underscored social and economic inequalities at the core of American society.
CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, in the recent Simon & Schuster release World War C, offers case studies on the effects of the virus. He then shifts to present a course of action he terms “pandemic-PROOF”—plan ahead, rethink and rewire risk in your brain, optimize health, organize family, and fight for the future—aimed at helping readers prepare for future pandemics and answering the question, “What can I do to be ready?” says Gupta’s editor, S&S v-p and editorial director Priscilla Painton. PW’s review noted that the book is “realistic but never doom-and-gloom,” and “lands as a refreshing look forward.“
Unlike much of the United States and Europe, Sweden was a Covid outlier in eschewing lockdowns and social distancing measures, aiming instead for a controversial herd-immunity strategy. Journalist Johan Anderberg explores his nation’s choices and their consequences in The Herd (Scribe, May 2022), translated from the Swedish by Alice E. Olsson. When Covid-19 first appeared, Anderberg writes, Sweden’s state virologist thought of it as “just another little outbreak the Chinese could handle.”
Anderberg tracks the evolution of the Swedish response, from spring 2020 until the end of that year, when “the government finally decided to dismantle the Public Health Agency’s strategy,” shutting down nightclubs and banning alcohol sales after 10 p.m. For many, it was already too late. “Swedes had been allowed to live freer,” he concludes. “And more had died because of it.”
Scribe publisher Henry Rosenbloom, who acquired the title and is editing the translation, says the book delivers American readers “an inside view of the personalities of Sweden’s health authorities, how they thought, and why they acted as they did at the height of the pandemic.”
Viral (Harper, Nov.), by Canadian molecular biologist Alina Chan and British science journalist Matt Ridley, arose out of the pair’s op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and their research into Covid-19’s beginnings. Ranging over bats, pangolins, and the unintentional microbiology laboratory release of the H1N1 virus in 1977, the authors tackle the complex mystery of the pandemic’s origins from several angles. Topics of discussion include a 2012 medical thesis on six miners admitted to a hospital in Kunming, China, with a SARS-related coronavirus infection most likely stemming from bat guano in their mine, and how journalists’ attempts to investigate the site were thwarted. While the authors draw no conclusions as to Covid’s origin story, Chan says, “We’ve been meticulously following and contributing to the search and wanted to make sure that the story is told,” in order to mitigate future outbreaks.
In March 2021, the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University and the University of Arizona Poetry Center launched the Global Vaccine Poem project, a “global community poem,” according to the project’s website, inviting any contributor to “promote Covid-19 vaccination through the imaginative language of poetry.” The forthcoming Dear Vaccine (Kent State Univ., Apr. 2022), edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, David Hassler, and Tyler Meier, draws on the more than 2,000 submissions from 118 different countries and is divided into thematic sections, among them “The Clinic,” “Grief,” “Nostalgia,” and “Envisioning the Future.”
Poems launch from the title phrase, capturing, with brevity, the hope the vaccine provides along with grief over pandemic losses. One contributor, Hailey Schlegel, writes, “Dear vaccine, I wish you existed one week earlier/ so that you could pierce my grandma’s thin skin/ I hope people take you seriously/ I have a life to live/ the next stage of my life without her/ but possible because of you.”
The Quarantine Atlas by Laura Bliss and Bloomberg CityLab (Black Dog & Leventhal, Apr. 2022) is similarly global in scope, depicting, through illustrations and storytelling, how the pandemic changed lives across the planet. “As stay-at-home orders swept the globe, so did dramatic shifts in indoor living,” Bliss writes. “Some took comfort in a slower pace. Others chafed against containment. Worlds shrank to four walls as the virus raged outside.”
Nabilla Nur Anisah, a contributor from West Java, Indonesia, sums up the experience of “getting used to getting everything done by the click of an app,” and learning “to juggle being an employee while also being the center of attention for my toddler.” Lisa Rose Drury of Ontario, Canada, writes, “My world has shrunk, which has made me feel a lot more limited, but in some ways I notice things I’ve always ignored.” Similarly, many titles discussed here allow readers to better understand not only the pandemic, but also the already present intersections of social justice and health care it has illuminated.
Liza Monroy’s books include the essay collection Seeing as Your Shoes Are Soon to Be on Fire (Soft Skull).
Below, more on public health books.
System Update: PW Talks with Thomas Fisher
In 'The Emergency' (One World, Mar. 2022), Fisher writes of his experiences working as an ER doctor on Chicago's South Side in 2020.
Care Plans: Healthcare Books 2022
New and forthcoming releases address various aspects of medicine and public health.
'It Feels Wrong Because It Is Wrong': PW Talks with Alexander Zaitchik
In 'Owning the Sun' (Counterpoint, Mar. 2022), journalist Zaitchik chronicles how the pharmaceutical industry transitioned from "ethical to post-ethical."
Med School: Healthcare Books 2022
Titles from academic presses view healthcare and the pandemic through a scholarly lens.