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23 June 2021

The story of America’s Covid crisis

Two books examine the US’s faltering response to the pandemic, and ask: what did we just live through?

By Emily Tamkin

What did we just live through? This is a question many Americans are asking as we emerge from both the Donald Trump presidency and the corona-virus pandemic. It is also the question at the centre of two new books. The Plague Year, by the veteran New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright – best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning study of another American catastrophe, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006) – chronicles the unfolding of the Covid-19 crisis in the US, which to date has killed more than 600,000 Americans. And in Last Best Hope, the Atlantic writer George Packer (formerly of the New Yorker) considers multiple crises in a more reflective mode, analysing how the US arrived at its current state, and where it might go next.

Wright’s story begins in early 2020, with a dramatic phone conversation between Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and his Chinese counterpart, George Fu Gao, who says, “I think we’re too late. We’re too late.” Readers are then taken into the halls of American power as those in charge decide what to do about the pandemic – or rather, what not to do. In Wright’s telling, most fail to live up to the responsibilities of their office.

There are exceptions: Wright seems especially sympathetic to Matt Pottinger, Trump’s China hand on the National Security Council, who appreciated the seriousness of the virus early on. But even Pottinger’s conduct at pivotal moments is at best perplexing and at worst enraging: after learning of the outbreak in Wuhan in ­January 2020, Pottinger phoned his brother, Paul, an infectious-disease doctor in Seattle. Officials, including Pottinger, then spent two months debating what to do while Americans blithely went about their business.

More predictable was Trump’s Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin’s reported response to proposals for a form of lockdown: “This is going to bankrupt everyone. Boeing won’t sell a single jet.” There are few heroes in Wright’s book. It is filled with people who muddled through, or displayed callous disregard for public health.

Wright explains political mistakes and scientific breakthroughs, but The Plague Year has a more intimate register, too, in its record of how the virus upended everyday lives. The most heartbreaking moments are those that juxtapose ordinary people falling ill with the incompetence, negligence or politicking of the Trump White House. Wright’s focus is the Covid crisis, but he also touches on the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 – events that are, of course, connected: the mass protests against police and state violence inflicted on black Americans took place during a pandemic that disproportionately killed black Americans and disproportionately affected their livelihoods. 

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Wright’s deeply reported account of the pandemic vividly evokes the hopelessness and fear I and many other Americans felt for so much of 2020 – confirming suspicions that the people who were supposed to lead us had abandoned that responsibility, and that our attempts to care for one another weren’t enough. Wright records the opportunities missed, from the critical initial delay in responding to outbreaks to the mess of early Covid testing, and the disregard of those in power for American lives. The Plague Year suggests it was even worse than we remembered or realised at the time.

***

While Wright’s book is a granular, journalistic account of the past year, George Packer’s Last Best Hope is more speculative, reflecting on the longer-term causes of Trump and a particularly dire pandemic (the US has the highest number of Covid deaths of any country in the world). Packer’s last two books – The Unwinding (2013), an exemplary work of non-fiction chronicling 30 years of socio-economic transformation and degradation in the US; and Our Man (2019), a biography of the diplomat Richard Holbrooke – are tightly written and carefully structured. By comparison, Last Best Hope is ponderous and rambling.

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Instead of fresh insights and precise explanations, it presents truisms and abstractions that bear little relation to the more complicated, and often more unpleasant, reality of American society. Packer’s explanation for the rise of Trump is particularly unconvincing. Enlisting the 19th-century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, Packer notes that “Tocqueville found that the most striking thing about American democracy… was ‘the equality of conditions’”, by which “[h]e meant equal status in society – the desire to be no one’s inferior… Trump reached the White House on the strength of this insight. He offered his supporters a deal: they would give him unprecedented powers, even the power to decide for them what was true; in exchange, he would drag the elites down and elevate his supporters as ‘the people’.”

To reduce Trump’s appeal to his supporters’ egalitarian or democratic instincts seems generous, quixotic even. Packer’s failure to acknowledge the role that racism played in Trump’s popularity is a glaring omission: after all, Trump launched his political career trying to discredit the citizenship of the first black US president and deployed racist rhetoric throughout his election campaign and presidency. (Later in the book, Packer writes that racism is too neat an explanation for Trump’s rise, and notes that white men were more likely to vote for Trump than white women – though it’s not clear why this makes racism irrelevant. Other evidence for his theory that white supremacy wasn’t an important factor in Trump’s election includes a comment left by a New York Times reader who says Trump voters aren’t white supremacists.)

“Trump’s inherited wealth and garish lifestyle,” Packer argues, “didn’t invalidate him as a populist tribune in [his supporters’] eyes, as progressives thought it should. Money alone doesn’t invalidate the American idea of equality – what offends ordinary people is being looked down on by those with unwarranted power and privilege.” Perhaps. But it is also worth noting that the median household income of a Trump supporter was higher than that of a Hillary Clinton supporter and of the average American.

In contrast to The Plague Year, in which the level of detail is at times overwhelming, Packer’s slim book deals in generalisations. He argues that over the past few decades, “four narratives have taken turns exercising influence” over public life in the US: “Free America”, which “draws on libertarian ideas, which it installs in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism”; “Smart America”, which has “outsized economic and cultural influence” and has abandoned patriotism; “Real America”, which Packer describes as “a provincial village where everyone knows everyone’s business, no one has much more money than anyone else, and only a few misfits ever move away”; and “Just America”, obsessed with identity politics, and in whose narrative “justice and America never rhyme”.

“Just America” gets it wrong, Packer claims, because “talking about race rarely gets to the heart of the matter”. What are we to do with these flattened caricatures? “I don’t want to live in the republic of any of [those four narratives],” Packer writes. Fortunately, he will not have to, because they are stereotypes, not realities.

***

Having established the contours of America’s crisis, Packer turns his attention to the project of renewal. “With all our divisions,” he asks, “what do we have in common? Is there some underlying adhesive that can make us a country again?” He delivers trite reflections – on how violence and kindness go together in the US, how American life is shaped by the code of equality – and familiar bromides: the road that could make us equal citizens connects our past and future. We’ve been here before, he says. We still want democracy. We need new ways of thinking and living.

Packer concludes by criticising (without naming names) young journalists who, he believes, reject journalistic objectivity in favour of moralising, and are hostile to free expression. (Packer was one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter on open debate, which included a similar critique: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics.”)

It’s worth pointing out that the young journalists he criticises are often people of colour in predominantly white newsrooms, and are offering a different way of seeing the world and challenging who gets to define objectivity.

Last Best Hope is perhaps a better guide to George Packer’s world-view than to the American crisis he is trying to diagnose, and lacks the journalistic rigour of his previous books. At one point, as if anticipating such criticism, he writes: “The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.” It’s true that nations and citizens need stories. But they need to be grounded in something more substantial than what’s offered here.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal
George Packer
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £14.99

The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid 
Lawrence Wright
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20

This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us