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Reading Covid-19 round-up: Focusing on the failures of science and government

Eoin Ó Broin looks at the growing number of titles on the impact of pandemic

Pop the word Covid-19 into any online book store and you will see the ever growing series of titles on the pandemic. Between the conspiracy theories and medical manuals there are a small number of though provoking works trying to make sense of the science, economics and ecology of the coronavirus.

Richard Horton's The Covid-19 Catastrophe (Polity, £12.99) is one of the strongest works to date. Its subtitle – What's gone wrong and how to stop it happening again – makes clear the authors' focus on the failures of science and government to get to grips with the pandemic, and what we need to do when the next virus comes.

Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, doesn’t hold back. He lambasts ministers and scientific advisers, particularly in Europe and the US, for “systemic government misconduct” and “acts of omission” that constituted breaches in the duties of public office.

The book traces the pandemic, and official responses to it, from late December 2019 to the Covid high point last year. He details the failure of governments to heed the World Health Organisation’s February 2020 urgent call to action and the subsequent human, social and economic costs of that inaction. While tough reading, Horton also sets out what must be done to avoid a similar disaster.

Andreas Malm's Corona, Climate and Chronic Emergency (Verso, £10.99) takes up the theme of a future pandemic threat. A scholar of human ecology at Lund University in Sweden, his focus is on the economic and environmental causes of Covid-19.

The book reviews the science, interrogating the interrelationship between biodiversity loss and the increasing incidence of viral pandemics. Mass deforestation is destroying the natural habitats for ever greater numbers of species. This removes their natural buffer with the human world, increasing the chances of “zoonotic spillover”.

Viruses, relatively harmless to animals in their natural habitat, cross over into the human world – via wet meat markets or new trends in exotic cuisine – with deadly effect.

In response, Malm calls for “ecological war communism”, the total mobilisation of the state to halt the biodiversity crisis and the economic dynamics driving it. “Defending wild nature against parasitic capital,” argues the author, “is now human self-defence”.

While his Leninist language may put some readers off, it is hard to argue with his central point, linking extractive capitalism, ecological collapse and the increased risk of pandemic.

Caught in Vienna during the first lockdown, Croatian philosopher and political activist Srecko Horvat organised a series of online meetings with writers, artists and likeminded activists.

With Guatemalan human rights lawyer and co-member of the DiEM25 movement, Renata Ávila, the broadcasts were transcribed and edited into this lively series of interviews under the title Everything Must Change (OR Books, £12.99).

The range of interlocutors is as diverse as the subject matters discussed. Stars of the international left-wing literary circuit feature prominently including Noam Chomsky, Slavok Zizek, Shoshana Zuboff and Yanis Varoufakis.

The cultural figures include British musician Brian Eno, former Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters and Mexican actor and director Gael García Bernal.

Covid-19 permeates all of the conversations with contributors discussing the impact the lockdown is having on their lives, work and world views. Some of the most interesting conversations – with Saskai Sassen, Richard Sennett, Stephanie Keaton – are those that focus on how the pandemic has forced us to rethink how we reorganise our cities, economies and societies. The plight of Julian Assange and the need for more whistleblowers in the digital age also features prominently as a shared concern across the book’s 23 conversations.

Slavoj Zizek's Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World (Polity, £11.99) is exactly what any seasoned observer of the Slovenian philosophers work would expect. A lively read, with lots of carefully placed cultural references and some predictable linguistic gymnastics but ultimately with very little substance.

Zizek’s core observations – why were Governments caught unawares of a problem scientists have been warning about for years?; yes, humans are the cause of the current crisis but it’s the system that’s the problem; can the pandemic finally force us to think beyond liberal capitalism? – are all valid, but not particularly remarkable.

Grace Blakeley's The Corona Crash (Verso, £8.99) was a surprisingly disappointing read. This was in part because it was the book that I expected most from.

Blakeley has established herself as a sharp economic commentator on the impact of financialisation on the contemporary world. For a generation locked out of renting or owning their own home and working in low-paid, precarious jobs despite being well qualified, she has become a standard bearer for those demanding a fairer future.

The book’s central argument is that the economic impact of the pandemic has been to accelerate the last days of finance capitalism and usher in the return of state monopoly capitalism.

My disappointment is due to the fact that the book is too short, and reads as if it was written in too much of a hurry. The consequence is a lack of empirical evidence to support Blakeley’s claim and too little space to tease out that claim’s implications for the post-Covid economy.

When living with the daily reality of Covid-19 – deaths, hospitalisations, lockdown restrictions, mental health crises, empty cities, closed businesses and disruption to all but the most basic of daily routines – the idea of binge reading about that very same virus seems a little self-punishing.

And yet taking a step back, asking how we got here, could it have been different, what are the deeper structural causes of our current crisis and what can we do to reduce the impact next time, was in fact a rewarding exercise.

Covid-19 and its human, psychological, social and economic impacts are wholly manmade. It would be a tragedy if we did not use the hours of lockdown to fully understand what we did wrong before and what we need to do right next time. For assisting us in that exercise all of the above writers have done us some service.

Eoin Ó Broin TD is Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing and author of Home: why public housing is the answer (Merrion Press, 2019) and Defects: living with the legacy of the Celtic Tiger (Merrion Press: 2021)

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