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BOOKS Mission to explain Covid and its consequences

Richard Horton's acute analysis of the pandemic and what might come after makes his book essential reading, says THABO MILLER

The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What's Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again
by Richard Horton
(Polity, £12.99)

 

AS EDITOR of The Lancet, Richard Horton was one of the first to highlight the research coming out of  China about the evolving Covid-19 pandemic and his frustration and anger at countries who ignored these early warnings has led to the publication of this book.

In it, he examines the timeline of what happened, the common themes in countries who responded well and those who responded poorly, and what a post-Covid world could look like.

As an eminent doctor and journalist, Horton has personal contact with many of the people who have become crucial figures in the medical and scientific community responding to this public-health crisis and therefore he has a unique insight.

But it would be wrong to think that a reader needs a strong background in public health or science to understand the book — Horton explains all important concepts in a clear and accessible way and though later in the book some jumps in logic and flow are challenging to follow on first reading, the overall messages — crucial for planning — are nevertheless clearly communicated.

The message the book sends about excess deaths among black and minority-ethnic communities, even taking into account the effects of poverty, geography and exposure, is startling. Nevertheless, references to primary sources of information are sparse and thus the original data behind such findings are unclear.

From a health-policy point of view, Horton discusses interesting and radical concepts for building a health system, encouraging readers to investigate further, and this is definitely a book for progressives with an interest in heath policy.

My only criticism of Horton’s discussion of these policy ideas is that in his conclusion on a post-Covid world, it is often unclear on precisely what he is predicting will happen and what he is hoping will happen.

A strong theme of Horton's book is that countries whose approach was grounded in collectivist and communalist principles greatly outperformed countries that took a more individualist approach, and he frequently seems to be on the verge of concluding “and therefore we need to build socialism,” yet shies away at the last moment.

In fact, he quotes Slavoj Zizek's statement that “Covid has made us all communists,” before quickly clarifying that he clearly does not mean like those nasty Soviets. He also highly praises the response that Kerala has had to the pandemic, yet does not comment on the idea that this might be due to it being a communist-influenced state.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about why the Covid pandemic occurred and what we can do in future. It is a book of its time, written during the outbreak in the Western world, and some thoughts and conclusions may end up being modified in the fullness of time.

That said, it is an important analysis of where we are in the summer of 2020, written by somebody very well placed to comment.

 

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