Eight books to make sense of covid times

Thankfully, in the last few months, a spate of books, which answer most of these basic questions, have been published. As India’s second covid surge shows signs of retreat, Mint shortlists eight of these books, which offer at least some clarity in these uncertain times.

1) Covid-19: Separating Fact from Fiction by Anirban Mahapatra

If you had the time to read just one of the eight books on this list, this is the book to read. Mahapatra could have alternately titled the book, everything you wanted to know about covid-19 but were afraid to ask. The book answers all the basic questions about the virus, including why the virus is called the coronavirus.

As anyone who has seen a visual representation of the coronavirus would know, the virus has spikes. As Mahapatra writes: “The spike, which is shaped like a club, is the most prominent distinguishing feature coming out from the surface of the virus. Spikes make the virus look like the corona of the Sun.” The book is littered with interesting facts and explanations. In fact, Mahapatra does not try to dazzle the reader with his knowledge of the subject and makes sure that he explains everything in simple English.

In the situation that India is currently in, the book’s chapter on vaccines in particular is of great importance. It should be made required reading for the politicians and bureaucrats in charge of India’s vaccine policy.

2) Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19 by Ryan A Bourne

While the title of the book sounds slightly heavy duty for a general reader, the book clearly isn’t. It essentially uses the concept of incentives to offer answers to questions that many of us have had over the last one year. Here are a few of these questions. Why did my supermarket run out of hand sanitizers? Why is the guy in the mask getting so close to me? Do lockdowns help? Should the government initiate them? Or should private businesses be allowed to do what is best for them?

One of the most interesting questions that the book answers, albeit in the American context, is this: Why did protests and marches not lead to a spike in covid-19? The reason for that lies in this fact: “As urban protests continued, non-protestors spent more time at home, both because of the curfews imposed within their cities, but also because they wanted to avoid any trouble or risks associated with the virus.”

3) Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steve Johnson

On the face of it, this book doesn’t have anything to directly do with covid-19, but it still is a good read to better understand the world that we are currently living in. The basic premise of the book is to explain how “all the advances of the last three or four centuries—the scientific method, the medical breakthroughs, the public health institutions, the rising standards of living—have given us about twenty thousand extra days of life on average.”

One of the things that has led to this increased lifespan is the development of vaccines. In the past, scientists have managed to invent vaccines for many killer diseases. This leads to the hope that vaccines against different mutations of the coronavirus will also be developed in the future.

Another important point that comes out clearly in the book is that different people working in different countries across different time frames have been responsible for the invention of vaccines. This doesn’t go well with the current trend of countries looking inwards in the post-covid world. Further, inventing the vaccine is just one part of the entire process. Getting people vaccinated is another thing all together. All these historical lessons are important in the current context.

4) Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity by Scott Galloway

Galloway is one of the most influential and famous marketing professors of this era. In this book, he explores the business world, and how he sees it shaping up in the post-covid world. One of the best parts of the book is where he analyzes new-age companies like Uber and Airbnb and their ability to cut costs dramatically in a post-pandemic world, a luxury that taxi rental companies and airlines don’t have.

A company like Uber can take its cost down by 60-80% simply because it rents space in other people’s cars. Galloway believes this is an exploitative model. As he writes: “The Uber model is exploitative, to be sure. Uber’s ‘driver partners’ still have to make their car payments and insurance premiums. The model is akin to United Airlines telling its flight crews to bring their own (Boeing) 747 if they want to get a paycheck. But it’s a model that works. For Uber.”

The book is full of interesting insights, particularly about unicorns and what Galloway calls the Four (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google). These companies have gone from strength to strength in the post-covid world.

5) The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

If there is one book among all these books which has the potential to be turned into a Hollywood movie, this has to be it. The reason is straightforward: no one tells the underdog story, which Hollywood so loves, better than Michael Lewis. He did that with The Big Short and Moneyball. And he now does it again with The Premonition, a story about a bunch of misfits, who try to get the US pandemic ready, but run up against the indifference of the Trump administration.

Interestingly, the story starts with a book as well. It’s the summer of 2005 and President George W. Bush happens to read John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. As Lewis writes: “Bush was the modern president perhaps most frequently reminded that freakishly terrible events can and do happen. He presided over the deadliest ever attack on American soil and the deadliest American natural disaster in a century (Hurricane Katrina).”

After reading Barry’s book, Bush asked his advisers what the government’s strategy was to handle a pandemic. The advisers gave him a document to read, to which the president said: “This is bullshit.” Given this, the advisers had to come up with a proper pandemic plan. And that’s how pandemic planning was invented—because a president decided to read a book. Like all of Lewis’ books, The Premonition is a nice breezy read, which really makes you think about the current government administrative setup as it exists.

6) Value(s): Building a Better World for All by Mark Carney

Mark Carney is a rare individual who has had the privilege of being a governor of two central banks. He was the governor of the Bank of Canada between 2008 to 2013 and the governor of the Bank of England between 2013 to 2020. Carney’s book is largely about how economics needs to evolve in the days to come in order to stay relevant. Under this broader theme, Carney dedicates two excellent chapters to the covid-19 pandemic.

In these chapters, he makes several interesting points, including one on how to go about comparing the economic cost of the pandemic. The conventional way is to compare it with the state of the economy that prevailed before the lockdown was implemented. This, Carney feels, is not the right counterfactual simply because “many people would have voluntarily reduced their external activities and therefore consumption to protect their health even if the lockdown had not been implemented.”

The book is not an easy read and may be best suited for those who have some amount of familiarity about economic theory and the issues at the heart of it.

7) The Age of Pandemics 1817-1920: How They Shaped India and the World by Chinmay Tumbe

Quite a few history books tend to be well-researched and boringly written or well-written but without much research. Tumbe’s book is an exception to this, being both well-researched and well-written.

In the book, Tumbe offers a detailed look at pandemics that hit India and other parts of the world during the period spanning from 1817 to 1920. The chapters on the different kinds of plague that hit India regularly in the past and the influenza pandemic, which started in 1918, have lessons that we could have learnt and implemented in order to tackle the current pandemic.

The most important lesson from the book is around the belief about the so-called immunity that Indians supposedly had against covid-19. As Tumbe writes: “Public conversation was filled with boasts about the special nature of Indian immunity against diseases contracted from growing up in unclean environments, and that the West was susceptible to pandemics because they did not develop immunity due to childhoods spent in clean environments! It was as if the Age of Pandemics that devastated India for a century had been wiped clean.”

While history may not repeat itself, it clearly does rhyme.

8) Doom: The Politics of a Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson is perhaps the most famous popular historian of this era. In this book, he dwells into the collective failure of the world at large to learn from catastrophes of the past, including pandemics. This is reflected in how leaders and governments across the world failed to see the first wave of the pandemic coming and refused to prepare for it, despite multiple warnings.

Nevertheless, as Ferguson writes: “Yet, not all failures are failures of leadership. Often, the real point of failure is further down the organizational hierarchy… Far from being well prepared for a pandemic, the US and the UK fared badly… It was tempting to blame Anglo-American travails on the incompetence of populist leaders. However, something more profound had gone wrong. The public health bureaucracy in each case had failed.”

What has also not helped is the rise of the internet and social media, which has amplified falsehood, making it difficult for governments to tackle the pandemic. As Ferguson writes: “The advent of the internet has greatly magnified the potential for misinformation and disinformation to spread, to the extent that we may speak of twin plagues in 2020: one caused by a biological virus, the other by even more contagious viral misconceptions and falsehoods.” Ferguson makes many such important points across the book, like he does in almost all his books. Nevertheless, the book isn’t exactly easy to read and requires serious concentration. Ferguson likes to dazzle the reader with facts, and they just keep coming, relentlessly, one after another.

To conclude, in an era where many people learn their covid basics from WhatsApp and other social media platforms, reading some of these books can make a real difference in knowing what is right and what is wrong.

Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money.

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