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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Microbiology

The COVID-19 Catastrophe What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again

By: Richard Horton(Author)
133 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Polity Press
Short, punchy, and timely, The COVID-19 Catastrophe is an incisive book that documents the staggering failures of Western Nations in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
The COVID-19 Catastrophe
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  • The COVID-19 Catastrophe ISBN: 9781509546466 Paperback Jun 2020 Expected dispatch within 3-4 days
  • The COVID-19 Catastrophe ISBN: 9781509546459 Hardback Jun 2020 Expected dispatch within 3-4 days
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About this book

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest science policy failure in a generation. We knew this was coming. Warnings about the threat of a new pandemic have been made repeatedly since the 1980s and it was clear in January that a dangerous new virus was causing a devastating human tragedy in China. And yet the world ignored the warnings. Why?

In this short and hard-hitting book, Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet, scrutinizes the actions that governments around the world took – and failed to take – as the virus spread from its origins in Wuhan to the global pandemic that it is today. He shows that many Western governments and their scientific advisors made assumptions about the virus and its lethality that turned out to be mistaken. Valuable time was lost while the virus spread unchecked, leaving health systems unprepared for the avalanche of infections that followed. Drawing on his own scientific and medical expertise, Horton outlines the measures that need to be put in place, at both national and international levels, to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again.

We're supposed to be living in an era where human beings have become the dominant influence on the environment, but COVID-19 has revealed the fragility of our societies and the speed with which our systems can come crashing down. We need to learn the lessons of this pandemic and we need to learn them fast because the next pandemic may arrive sooner than we think.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Short, punchy, and timely
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Sep 2020 Written for Paperback

    Out of the first crop of books relating to the coronavirus pandemic, this one seemed especially relevant. Author Richard Horton is editor of the leading medical journal The Lancet which has been an important publication outlet for new research results on both the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease COVID-19. Having also served at the World Health Organization (WHO), Horton thus has had an insider’s view of the pandemic and here brings a sharp critique to bear on the sluggish political response in Europe and the US.

    As I have done previously, let me just briefly comment on what is not in the book. The COVID-19 Catastrophe really focuses on the science policy failures that have allowed this disease to rampage out of control. At only 133 pages, this does not leave much room for anything else, so for a primer of the biological details known so far I once again refer readers to Understanding Coronavirus.

    Something that other books have only touched upon, but that Horton reveals more about here, is what happened in China in early January: how early warnings from doctors were gagged before the news reached Beijing, and how the WHO got involved. This culminated in the WHO issuing a PHEIC, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, which is the most serious warning they can send into the world.

    Other books such as Spillover and COVID-19 have pointed out that virologists have been warning of the threat of pandemics for decades, and both books give detailed histories of previous pandemics such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, MERS, and others. Horton mentions these briefly, but focuses primarily on the lessons not learned from the 2002-3 outbreak of the SARS virus. A painful highlight is the 2016 UK government tabletop exercise Cygnus that simulated a scenario of pandemic influenza, showing that the UK was not prepared. Even so, nothing much has been done with all this information. Horton blames it on a combination of factors. Complacency in the face of warnings. A widespread arrogant attitude that Western societies are somehow above nature, untouchable by disease. And political unwillingness to place public health ahead of economic growth, which shows in the lack of stockpiling of medical supplies and protective equipment, the lack of investment in research and disease surveillance, and, worse still, continuous budget cuts in the health sectors of most developed nations.

    When the inevitable finally did happen, subsequent actions, or lack thereof, only made things worse. This is where Horton is at his most strident, pointing out the weeks and months that passed in which governments did not prepare themselves, thinking they could somehow escape unscathed as if viruses respect borders; the too-little-too-late attempts to contain the virus through lockdowns; the political blame games rather than international collaboration; the confused, contradictory, and sometimes misleading messages from politicians towards the public (the UK and the US are mentioned in particular); the lack of protective equipment for medical personnel etc. If you have followed the news, this has become a sad but recognisable litany of failure by now.

    The publisher described this book as hard-hitting, one reviewer mentioned it pulls no punches, The Guardian called it “a polemic of the first order”, and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century “uncompromisingly scathing”. Horton labels Trump’s decision to cut funding to the WHO as a crime against humanity. The UK government’s claims that protective equipment was being delivered to the front lines and that health care workers were safe are called bare-faced lies. The failure of governments to protect its citizenry, gross incompetence. Perhaps by British standards Horton is outspoken, but the blunt Dutchman in me sees factual statements here, not hyperbole. I am not sure how you can come to any other conclusion.

    Where the roles of China and the WHO are concerned, Horton is balanced. There were questionable things happening in China, and the Chinese government was downplaying the situation or actively suppressing information at various levels within its hierarchy. “There is a gap in the timeline of the pandemic”, we need “a more detailed explanation of what took place in Wuhan”, writes Horton. But at the same time, Chinese scientists, policymakers, and health workers have been extraordinarily committed and effective in acting and collaborating to contain and defeat this disease. THe WHO is similary described here as an imperfect bureaucratic institution, but one that nevertheless did what it could within its limitations (MacKenzie provided useful background information on these limitations in COVID-19, which Horton omits here). But do not be fooled by governments who are seeking to deflect attention, writes Horton: “to blame China and the WHO for this global pandemic is to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and to marginalise the failings of Western nations.” If you take just one thing away from this book, this might well be it.

    In the final few chapters Horton looks towards the future and becomes rather philosophical. He asks what the effects of COVID-19 are on human society so far and turns to the ethics of anthroplogist Didier Fassin, highlighting an ethical trend of “biolegitimacy”, of seeing human life in purely biological terms, without consider the political conditions within which it exists. And he draws on the writings of Michel Foucault and Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon* when pondering what the need for enhanced disease surveillance will mean for our personal freedom. These sections feel somewhat sketchy. I am sure much more could be said about this, but Horton does not develop these themes further here. His list of what our post-COVID world should look like, coupled to his concerns of what will likely happen instead, are pages to take to heart though.

    This short and punchy book contains some incisive reporting on how countries failed to act in the face of this pandemic. No doubt, future reporters can explore this topic in far greater depth for many more countries. But we must start this now. Horton has seen first-hand how political disinformation campaigns are already trying to rewrite the narrative of the pandemic. We must document these attempts, he writes, which makes The COVID-19 Catastrophe an urgent and timely book.

    * the panopticon is an architectural design for prisons that allows complete surveillance by one security guard without prisoners knowing whether they are being watched.
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Richard Horton is Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet.

By: Richard Horton(Author)
133 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Polity Press
Short, punchy, and timely, The COVID-19 Catastrophe is an incisive book that documents the staggering failures of Western Nations in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Media reviews

– Selected as one of the Best Science Books of 2020 by the Financial Times

"This is the book to read if you want to understand the response to COVID-19. Powerful, beautifully written and reflective. Richard Horton at his best."
– Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health, University of Edinburgh

"The Editor of The Lancet pulls no punches. The pandemic has shattered our belief in Western exceptionalism and exposed the harsh underbelly of global inequality. A must-read."
– Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development, University College London

"Devastating [...] An incredibly powerful read."
– Piers Morgan, Good Morning Britain

"A polemic of the first order."
The Guardian

"Vital and up-to-the-minute."

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