A Chronicle of the Never-Ending Virus in Lawrence Wright’s ‘Plague Year’

Lee Polevoi


The Plague Year: America In the Time of Covid

By Lawrence Wright

Random House

322 pages


When New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright’s new book appeared at the start of last summer, things across the nation were looking up. New and effective vaccines were helping reduce horrific death counts due to Covid-19, and people in the U.S. and around the world were anticipating something the media dubbed “Hot Vax Summer”—a season in which pent-up emotions and desires would once again be allowed free play.


Then came the Delta variant.


As a result, reading The Plague Year at different times throughout the summer and fall has prompted a variety of responses. At first, it was interesting (from an anthropological perspective) to follow Wright’s “autopsy” of how badly things were handled at the beginning of the worldwide outbreak in early 2020. Readers could be forgiven for getting the impression that—while the times described could hardly have been more recent—we had begun to turn the corner on the pandemic and life was moving forward.



As months passed, that reading grew more problematic. Too many people were still becoming infected and far too many were still dying. Cynical, opportunistic politicians jumped on an anti-vaccine bandwagon, while the voters they claimed to represent were succumbing to the terrible disease. People were (and still are) inexplicably rejecting science, clinging to a demagogue-inspired belief that somehow, in some way, vaccines against this deadly disease threaten their “individual freedom.”


Things have stubbornly refused to improve in any dramatic fashion. As of this writing, it’s hard to see if, not when, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.


When the pandemic first began, Wright was helping to stage a theatrical production, “Camp David,” based on his nonfiction account of the 1978 Middle East peace summit. Watching actors in rehearsal—even as the planet was becoming overwhelmed by the coronavirus—made him think differently about actors on stage, working inside an enclosed theater:


“The slanted lighting created a dramatic portraiture, highlighting the faces of the cast against the shadowy figures of the audience in the seats across the way; and in that lighting, I noticed that, when one particular actor expostulated, bursts of saliva flew from his mouth. Some droplets arced and tumbled, but evanescent particles lingered, forming a dim cloud. At the time, I thought it was interestingly dramatic, adding to the forcefulness of the character. Later, I thought this is what a superspreader looks like.”



The Plague Year graphically describes the bureaucratic obstacles facing the nation as Covid-19 seized hold of the population and essentially stopped all of life in its tracks. He points out that “the world of public health is an intimate network of alliances and friendships … but also jealousies and grievances that dog the reputations of so many of its major figures.” These jealousies and grievances were part of the environment in which these leading figures worked, making a complex, high-stakes situation even more precarious.


Interesting tidbits crop up in the course of this account. For example, during early research into the causes and treatment of MERS and other airborne-transmitted diseases, the most effective animals used for laboratory purposes were guinea pigs. That’s because they “are the only rodent that can cough and sneeze, which makes them ideal for respiratory experiments.”


Finally, though, Wright’s detailed reporting underscores the futility of battling a pandemic in which potential victims fight so strenuously against accepting the cure. Something in human nature keeps us from doing what’s in our own best interest, and there’s little in The Plague Year that offers solace from this conclusion, let alone a recipe for our eventual recovery.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, due in 2022.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

Random House

Alexandra Koch (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Today Testing (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


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