Award-winning New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil, Jr. reflects on twenty-five years of covering pandemics–how governments react to them, how the media covers them, how they are exploited, and what we can do to prepare for the next one.
For millions of Americans, Donald McNeil was a comforting voice when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. He was a regular reporter on The New York Times
‘s popular podcast The Daily
and told listeners early on to prepare for the worst. He’d covered public health for twenty-five years and quickly realized that an obscure virus in Wuhan, China, was destined to grow into a global pandemic rivaling the 1918 Spanish flu. Because of his clear advice, a generation of Times
readers knew the risk was real but that they might be spared by taking the right precautions. Because of his prescient work, The New York Times
won the 2021 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.
The Wisdom of Plagues
is his account of what he learned over a quarter-century of reporting in over sixty countries. Many science reporters understand the basics of diseases–how a virus works, for example, or what goes into making a vaccine. But very few understand the psychology of how small outbreaks turn into pandemics, why people refuse to believe they’re at risk, or why they reject protective measures like quarantine or vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic was the story McNeil had trained his whole life to cover. His expertise and breadth of sources let him make many accurate predictions in 2020 about the course that a deadly new virus would take and how different countries would respond.
By the time McNeil wrote his last New York Times
stories, he had not lost his compassion–but he had grown far more stone-hearted about how governments should react. He had witnessed enough disasters and read enough history to realize that while every epidemic is different, failure was the one constant. Small case-clusters ballooned into catastrophe because weak leaders became mired in denial. Citizens refused to make even minor sacrifices for the common good. They were encouraged in that by money-hungry entrepreneurs and power-hungry populists. Science was ignored, obvious truths were denied, and the innocent too often died. In The Wisdom of Plagues
, McNeil offers tough, prescriptive advice on what we can do to improve global health and be better prepared for the inevitable next pandemic.