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The Wisdom of Plagues: Lessons from 25 Years of Covering Pandemics (Hardcover)
For millions of Americans, Donald McNeil was a comforting voice when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. He was a regular reporter on The New York Times’s popular podcast The Daily and told listeners early on to prepare for the worst. He’d covered public health for twenty-five years and quickly realized that an obscure virus in Wuhan, China, was destined to grow into a global pandemic rivaling the 1918 Spanish flu. Because of his clear advice, a generation of Times readers knew the risk was real but that they might be spared by taking the right precautions. Because of his prescient work, The New York Times won the 2021 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.
The Wisdom of Plagues is his account of what he learned over a quarter-century of reporting in over sixty countries. Many science reporters understand the basics of diseases—how a virus works, for example, or what goes into making a vaccine. But very few understand the psychology of how small outbreaks turn into pandemics, why people refuse to believe they’re at risk, or why they reject protective measures like quarantine or vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic was the story McNeil had trained his whole life to cover. His expertise and breadth of sources let him make many accurate predictions in 2020 about the course that a deadly new virus would take and how different countries would respond.
By the time McNeil wrote his last New York Times stories, he had not lost his compassion—but he had grown far more stone-hearted about how governments should react. He had witnessed enough disasters and read enough history to realize that while every epidemic is different, failure was the one constant. Small case-clusters ballooned into catastrophe because weak leaders became mired in denial. Citizens refused to make even minor sacrifices for the common good. They were encouraged in that by money-hungry entrepreneurs and power-hungry populists. Science was ignored, obvious truths were denied, and the innocent too often died. In The Wisdom of Plagues, McNeil offers tough, prescriptive advice on what we can do to improve global health and be better prepared for the inevitable next pandemic.
—Peter Piot, MD, co-discoverer of Ebola and first executive director of UNAIDS
"The Wisdom of Plagues is one of the most enlightening books on public health I’ve ever read. Written by one of the nation’s best science reporters, it not only documents the governmental response (and lack thereof) to Covid-19, but also other major global health crises including AIDS, Ebola, and SARS. McNeil informs, challenges, and provokes with meticulous research and exceptional prose."
—Leana Wen MD, former Baltimore health commissioner
"There’s never been a disease and health journalist quite like Donald McNeil, and this book does not disappoint. The gold standard for journalists covering pandemics."
—Peter Hotez MD, founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine
"The Wisdom of Plagues reads like a thriller. Riveting pandemic history is followed by a wide-reaching vision of how to stave off future pandemics. McNeil’s voice is clear and blunt: Mankind has the means to save itself but not the political will."
—Michele Barry, MD, director of the Stanford University Center for Innovation in Global Health
"An urgent, personal book from an award-winning global health journalist whose reporting spans AIDS to Zika to COVID. After weaving equal parts of medical history, insight, and compassion, McNeil concludes with bold prescriptions that can truly save lives. I view The Wisdom of Plagues as required reading for anyone remotely concerned about major infectious threats in a future that is far from certain."
—Claire Panosian Dunavan, MD, past-president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene
"As a global maternal health advocate, I have long followed Donald McNeil’s coverage. His work highlighting HIV and the ongoing impact of AIDS on women and girls is particularly to be admired."
—Christy Turlington Burns, founder of Every Mother Counts
"A brilliant and vital book. We ignore Donald G. McNeil Jr. at our peril. Bravo!"
—Howard Markel, MD, medical historian, University of Michigan
"Unravels the stories, emotions, distrust, beliefs, and rumors that can disrupt the rollout of even the best-laid pandemic plans if they haven’t thought through the human factors so eloquently and passionately described in this exceptional book."
—Heidi Larson, founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project
"When plagues arise, what saves the most lives? Donald G. McNeil Jr. provides a searching look for the answers, challenging dogmas and conventional authorities. A provocative must-read for both an informed public and public health professionals."
—William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
"This is a well-researched book by an engaging science journalist who covered global health for the New York Times for twenty-five years. The Wisdom of Plagues is a must read on the COVID pandemic, providing a compelling and well-told history and importantly, lessons, warnings, and hope for the future of infectious diseases."
—Monica Gandhi MD, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at University of California, San Francisco