If you had to read just one book to explain the coronavirus pandemic that stopped the world in 2020, Anirban Mahapatra’s Covid-19 should be it.
Written by a scientist for the lay reader, Covid-19 charts a fascinating course, from the life of a virus to its growth and spread, and animal and human responses to viruses. Mahapatra is a microbiologist who writes on science. I came across him on Twitter (@bhalomanush) as someone who explains fascinating inside stories of science without talking down or pontificating. That same easy tone makes this book easy to read even as it is filled with fact and explanation.
Covid-19 however does not just tackle the coronavirus pandemic from only the scientific perspective. Rather, it looks at historic, social and psychological angles as well. Earlier pandemics, how they affected humanity and the natural world, the way we responded and continue to respond to this “new normal” all come under consideration.
But it is the science that is the most gripping. What a virus actually is, how it expands its own lifecycle and propagation, how it jumps from life form to life form: in clear language and perspective we learn about the possible “RNA World” of almost billion years ago, the way evolution left the virus behind and yet how it continues to have such a devastating effect. We are fascinated with dinosaurs because of their size and ferocity. But down here at the micro level, one coronavirus can be far more dangerous than a few Tyrannosaurus rexes!
One of the biggest achievements of this book is the lucid, non-judgmental manner in which Mahapatra debunks all the various swirls of misinformation around Covid-19 and its spread. For instance, terms like “herd immunity” which are thrown about with that peculiar conviction that is born from incomplete understanding. He uses science and reason rather than anger, sarcasm and frustration to zap all the WhatsApp wisdom people are still fed with. How viruses spread, how they adapt themselves, how the human body fights them, why science finds it easy to find vaccines for some viruses and not others, most notably HIV-AIDs. We also learn how doctors and scientists grappled with existing medicines and the hope that some of them would work against Covid-19, and which worked, and which didn’t and why.
The issue of vaccines is also tackled, with explanations on how and why the vaccine process was and could be fast-tracked for this pandemic. From the Black Plague to Spanish Flu to Covid-19, we have made enormous progress. What path did all the vaccines on offer take to completion and why are they so different from each other? Why should we trust them? All this is painstakingly and clearly explained.
Interwoven into this is the politics of the virus, how different governments and countries responded and how some policies worked better than others. We learn how human behaviour past and present, how climate change and the environment all make life easier for rampaging viruses. The fact that the mental health impact of the virus has yet to be assessed and understood.
Published in 2021, barring the impact of large-scale vaccination, this is a very up-to-date book. It ends however with the large implications of this pandemic. Scientists have long warned us that one was overdue, but we did not take those warnings seriously enough. This bizarre year should at least teach us that we need to be ready. Mahapatra says over and again that this virus is going nowhere. Humanity has to be prepared, socially, culturally, politically and medically to deal with it.
Already today we see cases rising again all over the world. Masks and distancing will still be needed. The prospect of lockdowns in some parts of the world loom again. In his words, “We are a vulnerable species and for all our control of the planet, we are subject to its vagaries. Climate change, the emergence and resurgence of infectious diseases, deforestation and the rapid loss of species, overconsumption and socioeconomic inequities can no longer be pushed under the carpet”.
This is a clearly etched warning of what happens when we are nonchalant, uncaring or just plain stupid.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who is interested in viruses, the pandemic and our future.
Covid-19: Separating fact from fiction
By Anirban Mahapatra
Penguin, Rs 599