View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
  3. Book of the Day
26 February 2024updated 28 Feb 2024 9:33pm

Journal of an American plague year

Eric Klinenberg’s study of New York’s struggle with Covid in 2020 reveals a society riven by racism and discontent.

By Laura Spinney

Most of the books written about Covid-19 to date have been journalistic. They did the essential job of capturing the pandemic while we were living through it, but they lacked distance. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and a great deal more data, come the first of the histories. Early out of the starting blocks is Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University who has made a speciality of what he calls the “social autopsy” of disaster.

His book 2020: A Global Reckoning is the story of the year in which the United States of America became one of the deadliest places on Earth and New York recorded more illness and death from Covid than any other city on the planet. Klinenberg followed seven people across that city in that first full year of the pandemic, getting right inside their lives. He and his colleagues interviewed many others too, and they also conducted broader, macro-level research – looking, for example, at how social media shaped pandemic-related behaviour. By bridging the gaps between individual, community and population, he shows how pandemics alter society and exacerbate inequality. He follows the threads that connect the individual lived experience to the national phenomenon, to try to explain why, against all expectations, the US fared so very, very badly.

Klinenberg’s play on “2020 vision” is deliberate. Just over two years ago, for this magazine, I reviewed a bracingly optimistic survey of our chances of preventing future pandemics by Bill Gates, which provoked the question of why we had been so bad at prevention in the past, despite the availability of technology. Klinenberg answers that question. Gates writes, for example, that the humble face mask, the lowest of low-tech devices, could be the difference between whether or not a respiratory disease outbreak becomes a pandemic. Klinenberg explains why this apparently simple fix is anything but. The humble face mask, it turns out, is saturated with meaning, and it means different things to different people. For some, it turned out to be an intolerable infringement on their personal liberty.

Semantic conflicts are everywhere in this social autopsy. Take the term “essential worker”. In pre-Covid times, although the term wasn’t explicitly applied to them, one might reasonably think – based on their remuneration packages – that it embraced lawyers and bankers. In 2020, however, it encompassed farmhands, meat packers, transit and care workers. Yet these newly designated essential workers continued to be treated as disposably as they had been before. They had to keep working, but without the protection or support they needed to do so safely or effectively. Klinenberg describes one of his subjects, Enuma Menkiti of Brooklyn, choking up as she recounted how all the other mothers were able to accompany their young children in online lessons, while she had to leave hers to go to her essential, in-person teaching job. She, her partner – also an essential worker, as a corrections officer at Rikers Island prison – and their children suffered, but so did the wider society, because soon enough Covid was tearing through farms and meat-packing plants, transport networks and care homes.

On the matter of race, a perennially charged subject in the US, the semantic conflicts became so stark and absurd that black and brown people – always acutely aware of those conflicts – simply ceased to tolerate them and protested. Black men were being arrested for wearing masks and for not wearing them. They were so “essential” they were dying in droves, but their glaringly higher death rates were often put down to underlying medical conditions, with an implicit suggestion of poverty and self-neglect, rather than the long history of racial discrimination in the US – even by such prominent public health figures as Anthony Fauci. Klinenberg’s portraits leave you in no doubt that the Black Lives Matter movement owed its scale and impact to George Floyd being murdered during the pandemic; nor that a pandemic’s impact is always profoundly political, which Gates failed to fully acknowledge in his book.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

There are bright spots in Klinenberg’s vision. The Chinese community of New York City acted as a sentinel, since its members were in close contact with their relatives in China, where the virus originated. That early warning system could have saved lives if the authorities had been alert to it, so there is scope for improvement. There are cities like New York on every continent, that by virtue of their diversity have eyes on the world. The stories of the elementary school principal May Lee (who protected her community against school closures and anti-Asian hate crimes) and the retired district attorney Nuala O’Doherty (who organised home visits and new public spaces in hers) also inspire optimism, since their immediate reflex was to protect their communities, and they were indefatigable in that mission. The potential for grass-roots mutual aid, perhaps especially in the US, which provides less state support than many European countries, could be better fostered in future.

If the book has a fault, it’s Klinenberg’s patchy awareness of the deeper history. For example, he cites a single study from 2007 that suggested that the 1918 pandemic – the worst of modern times – was mild in China, when the weight of evidence points to it being anything but. Falling in the period when warlords ruled that country, when disease was rife and there was no centralised gathering of health data, it was misdiagnosed and underestimated, probably on an enormous scale. His historical references are also overwhelmingly American, but a pandemic is – guess what – global. In both 1918 and 2020, the US did better than most countries – and certainly better than China – at chronicling its experience, but what we really need is studies like this one from all over the world. Only then will we begin to properly unpick the dynamics of a pandemic. And only then will we draw the right lessons.

We have learned from history. There were no effective vaccines before the end of the 1918 pandemic, but they were being distributed against Covid before 2020 was out. The learning is too slow though. There is a simple explanation for this: pandemics tend to strike when both the human body and the body politic have forgotten the last one. Vaccines address the immunological amnesia, and it shouldn’t be beyond our wits to inoculate ourselves psychologically too, in contrast to the catastrophic short-sightedness of leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Once we get around to proper pandemic preparedness, Gates’ optimism might begin to look more reasonable, but it’s still on our to-do list. The World Health Organisation, the closest thing we have to a global institutional memory for pandemics, wasn’t ultimately up to the task, this time around.

Klinenberg writes that 2020 has entered the annals of world historical significance, “a time – like 1492, 1776, 1918, 1939, or 1968 – that history will never forget”. Two of the years in that list – 1918 and 1968 – were pandemic years, but I’ll bet that’s not the reason you remember them. It’s not by chance that pandemics have often coincided with war, protest and upheaval, and history teaches us that those concurrent crises tend to eclipse them. The result is that we forget how intertwined these threats are. If we remembered, we would take public health crises more seriously – and even stand a chance of preventing them.

Laura Spinney’s books include “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” (Vintage)

2020: A Global Reckoning
Eric Klinenberg
Bodley Head, 464pp, £25

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : , ,

This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU