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After the Deluge

Tom Inglis

100 Days That Changed the World: The Coronavirus Wars, by Barry O’Halloran, Raytown Press, 324 pp, €15.99, ISBN: 978-1527282933, available from www.100dayscoronavirus.com/buy}
Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way we Live, by Nicholas A Christakis, Little, Brown, 365 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0316628211

It takes a brave person to write a history of the present, particularly when we are still in the middle of the pandemic. There are ongoing twists and turns to the story, almost every hour. This helps explain why O’Halloran was still writing towards the end of January – vaccination was emerging as the big story – and why Christakis is a bit out of date – particularly in relation to vaccines – as he finished writing back in August. And yet Covid is the biggest story in the world and will continue to be so for some time. There is a desperate need to know what happened, when, where and why and what impact this pandemic will have on our lives. And who is to blame for all of this? Is it some bat in a cave in southern China or some idiot in a lab in Wuhan? Are we all to blame? Is Covid part of nature’s revenge?

Barry O’Halloran is such a brave person. He has given a clear, concise and very plausible explanation as to how the pandemic came about. His great achievement, however, is that he has done this in such a short time, that it is based on thorough research and, perhaps most of all, that it is so well-written. The first part reads almost like a thriller, with twists and turns in the story and plenty of goodies and baddies. There have been lots of deceivers and liars; lots of fake news. But one is left with the impression that the biggest baddy of all is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In some respects, O’Halloran’s book can be seen as a story of contemporary China told by other means.

O’Halloran has plenty of good form. He was one of the many writers who sought to explain what the Kerry Babies story was all about. Like the others, including Nell McCafferty, Gerard Colleran, Michael O’Regan and Joanne Hayes herself (with John Barrett), he was compelled to write and publish his book weeks after the Tribunal of Inquiry had published its report, but in time for the 1985 Christmas market. His was the most comprehensive description and analysis of the events at the time. As with the current book, he published it himself. What is strange and disappointing is that with the exception of a brief reference to numbers of deaths in nursing homes, there is no mention of Ireland. Given that there are detailed chapters on what happened in Australia, Britain and the US and detailed reference to what happened in other countries, it is a pity that he did not apply his forensic analysis to our own situation.

One of the best ways to describe a global phenomenon is to start local and personal. And so , 100 Days that Changed the World starts with Shi Zhengli, one of China’s top virologists. We are told how the events in Wuhan began to unfold from her point of view. She specialises in studying bats and the way they have so many viruses and how they are great at spreading them to humans. The next character to be introduced is Wang Yanyi, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. She turns out to be a bit of a villain as she is reduced to being a mouthpiece for the CCP narrative.

The CCP had established the P4 laboratory in Wuhan: it was to be the global leader in the study of viruses that spread from animals, mainly bats, to humans. The question that immediately arises is did Covid 19 emerge from some bat in a cave or from some bat in this laboratory? Why was the CCP so slow and so cautious in its reaction to events in Wuhan? Was there something going on that needed to be covered up?

Before trying to answer these questions, O’Halloran takes us on a journey to explain the history and nature of viruses. The writing is compelling: a potentially dry scientific explanation is made into an exciting story. Unfortunately, it is not a happy story. It is one of a war that has been raging between humans and viruses that has been going on for a very long time. It may be that coronaviruses have been around for over 10,000 years. Urbanisation and globalisation provide them with perfect war zones. After a couple of chapters detailing the early history, we end up with SARS in 2003 and the amazing case of Dr Liu in bedroom 911 in the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong. Christakis also covers much of this territory in his first three chapters but in more detail, covering previous plagues and the history of infectious diseases. This is important, as it puts Covid into a long-term historical perspective.

The more immediate questions are when, where and how did SARS emerge and what role did China play in its emergence? O’Halloran argues that the CCP covered up the extent of the outbreak for months. The WHO, which turns out to be, generally, a goodie, takes on the CCP. It is another woman, Dr Gro Harlem Bruntland, a trailblazer who relentlessly pursued the CCP until it capitulated and admitted it had been engaged in a cover-up.

SARS was far more deadly than Covid. It too attacked the elderly, killing over half of the over-65s who became infected. However, its very deadliness rebounded on it, leading to its extinction: it killed too many of the human hosts it needed to survive. There was much that could and should have been learnt from SARS that would have prepared the world to deal with Covid, which it was predicted would arrive. One of the main criteria was early detection. Unfortunately, the CCP learnt little about how to deal with early detection. When Covid struck it stuck with denial. It would seem that the CCP knew about Covid in December but at a time when every single day matters, it stuck its head in the sand. The National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that there were no new infections in the country between January 5th and 17th, 2020, despite hundreds of people clamouring to get into hospitals in Wuhan. By the time the CCP imposed a full quarantine on Wuhan on January 23rd, millions had left the diseased city and travelled all over the country to celebrate the Chinese New Year. If the Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier, it is estimated that the number of cases in the country could have been reduced by 95 per cent.

The question is: who knew what when? And if they knew why did they not speak? The answer lies in looking at what happened to Dr Li. On December 30th, 2019, he tweeted a warning his colleagues about the emergence of a SARS-like virus that spread through person-to-person contact. He was quicky detained and forced to sign a confession that he had spread false rumours. He was a goodie. But like many other frontline workers, he died from the disease on February 6th. There were 670 million views of the tweet announcing his death. Such was the level of public outcry, the CCP did a U-turn. It said that he had been a brave professional and had made an important contribution, but he had not been accurate in what he had said and he had not followed existing protocols. China does not do heroes, at least outside of the CCP.

O’Halloran argues that while there was a public hue and cry about what happened to Dr Li and that while the explosion of support for him and, by default, for free speech might suggest that China is on the road to democracy, this is not the case. The Chinese people are ambivalent about the state and the CCP. On the one hand, they recognise the enormous achievements that have been made. Wuhan has a population of 15 million. It has twenty universities and a hundred  institutes of higher learning. It is well on the way to being one of the leading technology cities not just of China but the world. But success comes at a price.

In the current political atmosphere of Xi’s China, obedience is valued far more than competence, and security always takes precedence over safety. This has incentivised local communist officials to play down problems, hide negative news and censor dissenting opinions. Under Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule, these tendencies have been greatly amplified. In the crucial early phase of the epidemic in Wuhan they led to gross shirking of responsibilities and inaction by those in power. It helped, O’Halloran argues, to create perfect conditions which gave the virus free rein to spread unhindered.

At this stage of the story, O’Halloran leaves China and focuses on the WHO and, in particular, its director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom. This part of the story helps explain why the WHO has not been such a goodie and why America withdrew from it. Despite mounting evidence, on January 22nd, following a meeting of its emergency committee, Tedros was reluctant to announce that what was happening in China was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In February, when challenged, he lavished praise on China for all its efforts to combat the disease and in particular on the premier, Xi Jinping. It may be a coincidence that Tedros is Ethiopian and that Ethiopia has received billions of dollars of development aid from China. However, it would seem that from the outset the CCP fed Tedros and the WHO a tissue of deceits that they gleefully swallowed.

But back to the main story. What is the evidence that Wuhan seafood market (also called a wet market because, like other Chinese markets that sell meat and live animals, it is regularly hosed down to prevent disease) was the source of the pandemic? In March, the WHO declared that the disease probably came from bats via some animal, maybe domesticated. But we still don’t know where the bat came from and there is still speculation that the virus may have come from a lab through a security breach.

Many labs engage in highly risky “gain-in-function” research in which pathogens are deliberately modified to become more lethal so that when a lethal virus arrives researchers have a head start on how to deal with it. While such research is not confined to China or the P4 lab in Wuhan, there had been specific disquiet and warnings from American officials of the possibility of a leak from P4. However, more recent research has focused on another lab, much closer to the seafood market in Wuhan, where there seems to have been a researcher who was “batty” (obsessed with bats) and lax in taking proper security measures. Despite numerous articles dismissing a lab leak as the initial cause of the pandemic, O’Halloran says that this lab is “the closest we have yet come to finding a smoking gun”.

Christakis, on the other hand, is less concerned with trying to find out who did what, where and when and instead focuses more on responses, policies, comparisons with previous pandemics and the impact on society and culture. The writing is engaging but more scientific and technical. While both books lean heavily on academic sources, it is remarkable that while O’Halloran worked alone, Christakis had a team of five research assistants. The other major difference is that while O’Halloran’s view is global, Christakis’s is more oriented towards the US. Finally, Christakis, while critically reflective, is more trusting and believes that, with the exception of Donald Trump, most of the main players were not being deceitful, O’Halloran is more sceptical.

This is seen in the way the authors deal with Dr Antony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the US and who later became Trump’s most senior adviser. For Christakis, Fauci is a good guy who did his best to speak the truth and keep Trump on side and who, in the future, should be a leader in a public campaign to promote acceptance of science. For O’Halloran, Fauci was a bad guy who, especially in the early days, and as part of his kowtowing to Trump, misled the American public about the scale of the pandemic. More importantly, O’Halloran points out that Fauci was a strong supporter of the type of risky “gain-in-function” research being carried out in Wuhan and had been involved in a collaborative project with the Wuhan Institute of Virology costing millions of dollars.

The second part of O’Halloran’s book describes and analyses how the disease spread around the world. While the CCP locked down towards the end of January, they allowed international travel. This meant that millions of Chinese travelled around the world to celebrate the New Year. Much of the reaction to the pandemic in other countries depended on what they had learnt from SARS. This helps explain why Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan were fast out of the blocks and did so well in containing the disease, particularly in their regimes of testing and tracing and restricting international travel. It was not until March 17th that the EU closed its borders to the outside world.

It was because SARS never really struck Europe that it was so slow to react and why it got hit so quickly and badly. It didn’t help that the response of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) was a mixture of complacency and confusion. On February 18th its Technical Advisory Committee declared that the risk to Europe of Covid-19 was “low”. Four days later the disease started to explode across northern Italy. The reaction of the Italian government was quite pathetic.

There is an ironic and deadly twist to the Italian story. In recent years, Italy has developed a cosy relationship with China. However, it got badly bitten when the disease hit. There was completely insufficient PPE available for front line workers. The reason was that in late January and February, the CCP directed a hoovering up of global stocks of PPE. As late as February 23rd a cargo plane with 25 metric tons of PPE, donated by EU states, left Vienna for China.

In the next chapters, O’Halloran focuses on how the pandemic evolved in Britain, Australia and the United States. Presumably this choice was related to the readily available range of sources as well as the market of potential readers. These chapters are well-written, engaging and full of insights, though they lack the thriller excitement of the first part of the book.

O’Halloran reminds us of the chaotic thinking that characterised the policies of many national governments. On March 13th the British government’s chief scientific officer said that the goal would be to attain herd immunity. Three days later the health secretary said that herd immunity was a scientific concept and not part of the government’s plan. Things were even more chaotic in the United States and O’Halloran details how mad it got and, as a consequence, how hundreds of thousands may have died unnecessarily. In 2019 the Global Health Security Index (GHSI) ranked America first out of 195 countries in terms of its preparedness for a pandemic. And yet, by August 2020, the US had 25 per cent of the world’s infections and deaths from the virus even though it only makes up 4.25 per cent of the world’s population. O’Halloran details the disastrous decisions and incompetence of many leaders, particularly Donald Trump, but others as well. Dr Fauci does not come out well from O’Halloran’s analysis, a cuddly puppet who was happy to dangle to Trump’s manipulation.

In the final part of the book, O’Halloran looks at the costs and consequences of the pandemic. The main cost was obviously among the elderly, but he focuses in on the incredibly high level of infections and deaths in nursing and care homes. Across the world, up to one half of all deaths occurred in these homes. It was not until the end of April that the WHO recognised this. But the only reason it and national governments eventually woke up to what was happening was because of media reports.

O’Halloran has chapters on treatments, vaccines and testing. While there may not be much new in these, the achievement is to draw together the numerous different research reports into a very succinct, highly readable overview. What he makes clear is that however successful the vaccine roll-out might be, there will be a need for highly effective, rapid testing into the future. But for testing and quarantining to be successful, states will have to rigorously enforce laws. He suggests that this is what China has succeeded in doing. But what committed democrat wants to live in China or follow its example? And yet, slowly but surely democratic societies have moved from moral persuasion to legal enforcement as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. The inability of people to behave morally and not to do anything that threatens or endangers the common good has meant that states have had to rely more on legal penalties to ensure conformity to health and safety regulations. There is a sense of inevitability of legal enforcement coming down the road in much the same way as it did with drink-driving.

Christakis set himself the task, as mentioned in his subtitle, of detailing how the pandemic has impacted on the way we live. Will there be substantial changes, or will we return to the old normal and just wash our hands a bit more? The German sociologist Max Weber had a theory that our lives revolve around various different material and ideal interests, for example power, wealth, religion, knowledge, sex and so forth. The way these interests are fulfilled depends on how they impact on each other. Ideas can have an impact on interests; they can push the fulfilment of these interests down a different track. In this way, he argued, the idea of salvation and how it was attained, the Protestant ethic, was the catalyst for the development of a new spirit of capitalism.

The question is, then, to what extent can events like the pandemic push the fulfilment of economic and political interests down a different path? Will the pandemic, to use Weber’s metaphor, act like a switchman and send the way we live our lives down a different track, particularly our interest in consumption and mastering and controlling the environment.

Alas, Christakis does not attempt to answer any of these big questions, and maybe it is too early to even ask them. Instead he focuses on more immediate issues such as the impact on everyday social interaction, how we grieve, new fears about disease and death, dealing with lies that we are told (mainly in the form of fake cures and conspiracy theories), the impact on employment and the way we work.

The big question is will the pandemic change the way we see, understand and relate to each other, and our relation with other species and the environment. To what extent has the pandemic brought about a collective consciousness; that we are all in this together. That nation states and individuals can collaborate to defeat a common enemy. Or to what extent will self-interest and selfishness persist both at the level of the individuals, families and nation states?

Christakis has two chapters, “Us and The”’ and “Banding Together”, that look at these different pulls. There is evidence for both. It would seem that the pandemic has done little to reduce social inequality. But it is not just the poor who have suffered. Hundreds of thousands of elderly people were dying in nursing homes before their governments took any notice. And yet, there are incredible examples of self-sacrifice: millions of front-line workers around the world putting their lives at risk looking after the sick and dying.

There are constant messages, from the state and in the media that “we” are all in this together. That we as a people can, by acting in unison, stop the spread of Covid. A strong sense of belonging can lead us to all doing the right thing. “We” includes everyone, young and old, the rich and powerful and the poor and marginalised, those who have much to lose and those who have little or nothing to lose. But this notion of nation is, like God, an imagined one. It is aspirational. We will it to exist. “We” have to believe in it. But, as we know, there are many who don’t believe. They don’t feel the state speaks or acts for them. They feel alienated, marginalised and excluded. Then there are the privileged who feel that they are above any regulations. Rules are for everyone else but them.

Although not to the same extent as Christakis, O’Halloran also reviews the consequences of modern plagues and wars. He is pessimistic about economic growth. Those hoping for a rebound like the roaring 20s are in for a reality check. He believes the pandemic recession will last longer than the recent financial crisis and will be at least twice as severe. The immediate issue is how to reboot economies. There will be massive borrowing and Keynesian investment but if that doesn’t lead to increased employment and production it will just lead to inflation. And what is to be invested in? The same type of companies that add to unnecessary consumption and destroying the environment?

What, then, have we learnt so far from the pandemic? It may well be that the war between humans and viruses is just beginning. If it continues, the question is to what extent have governments and scientists learned in terms of preparing for the next attack. It would seem that, with a few exceptions, little was learnt from SARS-1.

The second thing we have learned is there has been a shift in the balance of world economic and political power towards China. The tentacles of Chinese power are reaching deep into the centre of many countries. How America and Europe deal with the emergence of an authoritarian super-state will be crucial. The way America has dealt with the pandemic is not just pathetic, it has been, to quote Fintan O’Toole, pitiful.

There will I think be many minor changes in the way we live our lives. In the way we work, communicate and travel. We will wash our hands more often. Embracing, hugging and shaking hands may die out. Wearing face masks in public may become common. But I suspect that the forces of the market and the media will be strong enough to bring about a rapid return to consumption. If there is anything like the boom of the 1920s, what will this do to the attempts to reduce carbon emissions.

The other change that has taken place, already very evident, is the decline in the role of religion in providing meaning and comfort and enabling people to bond together. When it came to understanding what was happening in their lives, people turned to scientists rather than priests and prophets. Scientists have become the new gurus. They explain how the virus works. They tell us how to live our lives. An opinion poll by LIFT found that 44 per cent of respondents said that health professionals had shown the greatest level of positive leadership during 2020. Faith-based groups, at 4 per cent, received the lowest rating.

There will be one other outcome. In the coming years, there will be an explosion of books, films, plays, novels, poems, artworks, songs and pieces of music which will try to explain and help us understand what this pandemic has been about. The two books under consideration are a good start.

1/3/2021

Tom Inglis is professor emeritus of sociology in UCD. His most recent book was To Love a Dog: The Story of One Man, One Dog and a Lifetime of Love and Mystery.

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