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29 July 2021

The best books about the Covid-19 pandemic

From modern science to literary classics, the New Statesman rounds up ten of the best pandemic reads.

By Ed Lamb

The pandemic is far from over, but after 18 months of living with Covid, the crisis requires some reflection. Whether you’re looking for an emotive personal account or a wide-ranging polemic on government failures, a pioneering work of modern fiction or a disturbingly relevant classic, here is the New Statesman’s guide to the best books about the pandemic.

Breathtaking: The UK’s Human Story of Covid by Rachel Clarke 

Sometimes the stats aren’t enough to explain the damage inflicted by Covid-19. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid being personally affected by the virus, the palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke’s book provides a moving account of life on Covid-19 wards. As she told the New Statesman: “I specialise in death: what it looks and sounds like, its visceral reality.” This is a heavy subject, but Clarke brings to life the admirable spirit of the NHS and its patients.
Little, Brown, 240pp, £16.99 

The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid by Lawrence Wright 

Best known for his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), the American writer Lawrence Wright is no stranger to documenting tragedy. His expansive and meticulous investigation into the failures of the United States to contain the pandemic criticises both the individuals and institutions involved, which, he argues, contributed to the loss and suffering through complacency. The New Statesman‘s Emily Tamkin called it “a deeply reported account” that “vividly evokes the hopelessness and fear I and many other Americans felt for so much of 2020.”
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20

A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth 

Many critical assessments of the British government’s handling of the pandemic focus on its ineptitude. In A State of Fear, the photographer, writer and filmmaker Laura Dodsworth examines something more sinister – not our leaders’ inability to resolve chaos but their ability to weaponise fear. Dodsworth includes insights from the public, politicians, scientists and psychologists, and asks us to consider how dangerously a climate of fear can undermine democracy and reason.  
Pinter & Martin, 320pp, £9.99

Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green

While there have been many institutional failures during this pandemic, one astounding triumph has been the development and approval of vaccines in record time. The Oxford/AstraZeneca team achieved in a matter of months what would usually take years, and behind this feat are two remarkable people: Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green. As the researchers detail the brilliance of their team, they unwittingly show us their own. 
Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £20 

[see also: Sarah Gilbert has shown the value of scientists who understand politics 

The Plague by Albert Camus 

It is striking that a novel published in 1947 resonates with such force 75 years later. Camus’ The Plague is alarmingly prescient: demand for the book was so great last year that publishers struggled to meet demand. In what Samuel Earle, writing in the New Statesman, labelled “the defining book of the coronavirus crisis”, a surgeon witnesses the destruction caused by a mystery virus outbreak in the Algerian town of Oran, and its powerlessness to stop it. 
Penguin Classics, 272pp, £7.99 

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Populism: Before and After the Pandemic by Michael Burleigh 

The Covid-19 pandemic need not always be the story in itself; for the historian and author Michael Burleigh, it is only one thread in the wider fabric of populism’s history and future. Although the coronavirus crisis has undermined some populist leaders’ grip on power, Burleigh fears the turmoil that will ensue after Covid-19 may provide the conditions for more of their kind to rise again. The NS‘s Jeremy Cliffe called it “a spirited, readable and thought-provoking tour through the forces defining our age”.
Hurst, 104pp, £10.99 

The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality by Toby Green 

According to Toby Green, once a journalist and now a professor of African history at King’s College London, there is an irrational asymmetry in our response to the pandemic. Whether or not the reader is persuaded by his arguments against lockdown, it is undeniable that such restrictions have disproportionately affected the young and poor. Green’s unique take explores how these groups, often lacking the facility for remote work and with their education severely limited, are likely to experience staggering inequalities for years to come.  
Hurst, 288pp, £14.99 

Summer by Ali Smith 

The final book in her critically acclaimed seasonal quartet, Ali Smith’s Summer was one of the first novels to take on the Covid-19 crisis. Early on in the book, as Johanna Thomas-Corr wrote in her NS review, teenage Sacha receives a text from a friend that “forces her to think about this thing called coronavirus that’s been swirling around the internet”. The novel is the culmination of a pioneering project, each ambitious instalment involving new characters negotiating the difficulties of a very contemporary Britain. With Summer, Smith, whom Erica Wagner named our “national novelist”, writes with her familiar and all too necessary note of hope and optimism.
Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, £8.99 

The Unequal Pandemic: Covid-19 and Health Inequalities by Clare Bambra, Julia Lynch and Katherine E Smith 

Drawing on a range of data, three professors with expertise in public health and political science explain why the narrative of Covid-19 as a disease that does not discriminate is false: according to their analysis, the pandemic kills unequally, is experienced unequally, and impoverishes unequally. This damning review concludes that important lessons must be drawn from the pandemic if we are to prevent inequalities being exacerbated again.  
Policy Press, 198pp, £9.99 

Many Different Types of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS by Michael Rosen 

One year after he was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic, Michael Rosen has produced a poetic account of his experience of the virus and his NHS care. “If I died, it would have been unexceptional,” Rosen said in an NS interview with Ellen Peirson-Hagger, and Many Different Types of Love is an intensely emotional journey: it documents deeply frightening moments such as being put into an induced coma, but is also full of the light-hearted comedy we would expect from the former Children’s laureate. Including personal messages written by his carers, Rosen’s compilation explores the range of human emotions felt by those living with and alongside Covid-19.  
Ebury, 288pp, £14.99 

[See also: The UK is the only G7 economy not to have recovered from the Covid crash]

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