Award-winning author Lawrence Wright on latest book The Plague Year, including a tragic outbreak in Pittsburgh | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Award-winning author Lawrence Wright on latest book The Plague Year, including a tragic outbreak in Pittsburgh

click to enlarge Lawrence Wright - PHOTO: KENNY BRAUN
Photo: Kenny Braun
Lawrence Wright
When Lawrence Wright started to research his latest book, The Plague Year (Knopf), he knew there were stories to tell beyond the media headlines and the failures of government agencies that didn’t do enough to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 virus.

What surprised him was how many people, just by doing their jobs, impacted their communities. Dr. Ebony Hilton, an anesthesiologist at the University of Virginia, volunteered to go to communities of color near Charlottesville to provide testing.

Iris Meda, a retired nurse, taught nursing students at a small college near Dallas because she believed it was important to train new frontline workers. She contracted COVID while teaching, and died.

And Barney Graham, an epidemiologist Wright met while researching his novel The End of October, “deserves a Nobel Prize,” according to Wright, who appears Mon., Nov. 8 in a virtual event for Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings series.

“To him, it's just science and he loves to do it,” Wright says of Graham, who is a deputy director at the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “He’s very curious. It was pure science that got us this vaccine so quickly. He and his partner Jason McLellan had been working on other coronavirus vaccines and, had it not been for that, we would still be struggling to have a vaccine, even now right.”

“Just imagine what it would be like if we were running around with a Delta variant circulating and no workable therapy,” Wright adds. “The nation would be crippled. The whole world would be.”

Graham and McLellan’s work is in counterpoint to the many missteps and miscalculations that Wright examines in the book. One of the most egregious errors was the Trump administration’s decision to jettison a playbook, a meticulous step-by-step guide for “combatting a pathogen of pandemic potential,” prepared during the Obama presidency.

Citing a report issued in 2019 that ranked the U.S. as one of the best prepared nations to fight a pandemic, Wright says that because of such mistakes, the county was “one of the worst in terms of performance. We totally failed.”

And one of the reasons the U.S. failed, he says, was that there was a lack of trust in the country’s leadership, compared to Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, and a few other regions where citizens followed and adhered to quarantine measures.

“If you look at the countries of the world that did well with the pandemic, it correlates with the degree of trust in authority, and especially with their government,” Wright says. “I think that is a huge indication of what happened in America, the absence of trust in government, in the press. ... Almost everything in society was crippled, and it hobbled our ability to fight this horrible disease.”

The Centers for Disease Control, according to Wright, also failed the country during the initial stages of the COVID outbreak. Noting that the agency was in decline when Trump became president, Wright says the CDC suffered because of the weak directors he appointed: first, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who was dismissed after six months when it was learned she bought shares in a tobacco company less than a month into her tenure at the CDC; and then, Robert Redfield, who Wright calls “a nice man but not a strong leader.”

“The CDC desperately needed someone who could stand up to Trump, but instead, Redfield was compliant,” Wright says. “His organization was undermined by political hacks and attacked by other government agencies. ... They cut $200 million out of the CDC budget for an ad campaign that supported the president’s perspective on the pandemic. That was humiliating.”

Midway through The Plague Year, Wright states that he believes the country is at “another inflection point, when society will make a radical adjustment, for good or ill.” Almost a year after finishing the book, he still isn’t sure if the country will emerge better or worse.

“I think it's still an open question,” he says. “We’ve faced huge challenges before. We weathered the Depression and were able to recreate our society and make it stronger and more compassionate in the middle of that economic depression. After World War II, we created the most powerful country in the history of the world.

“But after 9/11, we invaded Iraq and tortured people. So, it's not a certainty that tragedy can lead to enlightenment, but it's a possibility.”

A Plague in Pittsburgh

The COVID-19 pandemic eerily mimicked many of the same conditions that occurred during the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. In Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year, parallels are drawn between the two health-related disasters.

Notably, Pittsburgh did not fare well in 1918. Wright notes that Philadelphia had “the second-worst mortality rated in the nation.

“It was exceeded only by Pittsburgh.”

While Pittsburgh didn’t record its first case until Oct. 1, Philadelphia had already recorded 635 deaths in 24 hours. The state’s health commissioner, Benjamin Franklin Royer, responded by banning public gatherings and closing bars, movie houses and theaters, and ending parades and public funerals.

But Pittsburgh’s rate of infection increased. City leaders responded by suspending jury trials and ending church services, banning alcohol sales (except in drug stores), and finally closing schools on Oct. 24.

Resistance to the bans and closings was fierce. Wright writes:

“Business interests were furious at the shutdown — saloon keepers in particular — and under pressure, the mayor (Edward V. Babcock) declared the city open for business on November 9. As a result, the epidemic dragged on, month after month. Pittsburgh would not celebrate forty-eight hours without the flu until April 21, 1919, tallying a staggering death rate of 806 people per 100,000. Together, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh contributed many of the 40,000 to 50,000 orphans that the flu left behind in its march through Pennsylvania.”
Ten Evenings with Lawrence Wright. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 8. Lecture will be available to screen virtually online for one week. $10-15.

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