Hub Dialogue

Journalist Lawrence Wright details America’s faults, failures, and opportunities in the pandemic era

Protesters gather for an anti-vaccine rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. Patrick Semansky/AP Photo.

Today’s Hub Dialogues episode features Pulitzer Prize-winning author and staff writer at The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright. He sits down with Sean Speer to discuss his illuminating new book about America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the many societal fissures the pandemic revealed and exacerbated, and the looming great power competition with China.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, AmazonAppleGoogleSpotify, Stitcher, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and journalist at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID. I’m grateful to speak to Lawrence about the book’s key ideas, insights, and analysis about the extraordinary past 24 months. 

Let’s start big picture: you observed in the book that COVID-19 arrived in America in what you describe as the country’s most vulnerable moment. How you define that vulnerability, though, may surprise listeners. It’s not merely a commentary on President Trump or his administration per se. You’re referring to something much deeper. Do you want to start by laying out the main conditions and factors that led to the country’s vulnerability to this virus? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I think America had been inclining towards disunion for many years, and Trump was just an expression of that. In part, I think that the end of the Cold War left America in an odd spot. We had fortified ourselves against the formidable enemy, and then that enemy disappeared. And it’s interesting to think about how much the Cold War defined the American way of life, and we won that contest. But it left us alone in the world; a superpower with no rivals, and an absence of mission. And I think that that decay in American society really began at that moment. 

You know, we had all the instruments available, the public health, and we were rated number one in the world, in terms of being able to cope with a crisis like this. And in the event, we behaved nearly the worst in the world: our death count is higher than any other nation, and the rate of death is at the bottom. So, what would account for that? And if you look at countries that did well, they’re marked by a high degree of trust in their governments and institutions, and we’re the very opposite. And I think with all of our advantages, it was that civil disunion that caused us to fall apart and fail so badly in the face of this pandemic. 

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned, Lawrence, that the Cold War served as a kind of animating source of meaning and purpose for America writ large. One could make the case that that applies to the American conservative movement, in particular. 

I recently spoke to David Frum about how there’s a case that the conservative worldview ought to have been well-equipped to deal with COVID-19. Conservatives, broadly speaking, tend to be concerned with threats and preference security and order. You describe in the book, for instance, how administration official Matt Pottinger was often ahead of the curve by following these instincts. Yet, he was obviously an outlier.

Why do you think the Trump administration came to adopt its skepticism and disregard in response to the pandemic? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, since the Reagan era, conservatism in America has turned itself on government itself as being the enemy. Reagan actually said that—the problem anyway. But the enemy had been the Soviet Union, then it became ourselves, became our own government. And so, for decades, you know, conservative leaders in the United States have been undermining the federal government and the state governments in whatever cities they had under their control. 

So, once again America had been a nation that could rally to the flag because we were standing up against something. And although we had conservative and liberal branch branches in our country, they were pretty much united on the need to resist the Soviet Union, and that reason for this union disappeared. And that’s when the conservative movement turned its guns on the U.S. government. 

SEAN SPEER: We’ve been talking about the Soviet Union so far and its place in shaping American politics and policy during the Cold War. Let’s turn the conversation to another potential geopolitical foe: China. Your book provides significant insights into the Chinese government’s lack of transparency and cooperation in the early days of the pandemic. Are you surprised that there hasn’t been more international scrutiny or criticism of China’s response? And if so, what do you attribute that to? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, there has been a fair amount of international outcry about China. Yes, it’s somewhat subdued. That fact is explained by China’s increased significance in the world and the resistance of governments and businesses to challenge China, fearing that they might lose some kind of political or economic advantage. And yet China’s own behaviour is what makes the lab leak hypothesis far more plausible than it might otherwise be. And if they had thrown open their doors to their labs and invited the international community to do serious investigation and assistance, then we would know far better if this is a plausible theory or not.

But right now, there are two possible routes for this virus to have been created. One was natural: it came from a bat; it probably went through an intermediate animal and then from that animal into humans. And that’s a perfectly plausible scenario, although there has been no evidence to support it so far. And the other is that it came out of a lab: the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where samples, bad samples, with coronavirus had been collected and experimented on, doing what were called gain of function experiments in very low security. And it’s equally plausible that a lab worker there, maybe she got infected, maybe she didn’t even have symptoms. She just walked out in the lab carrying this incredibly dangerous virus that was going to kill millions of people around the globe. 

SEAN SPEER: If we could talk a bit about the American response, in general, and something that you document in the book in particular, which is the degree of factionalism in the early days of the pandemic, including, for instance, in the form of the Coronavirus Task Force, which was eventually led by Vice President Mike Pence. Do you think this factionalism and conflict within the American government was especially marked in the Trump Administration? Or, as we’ve seen in recent weeks in the Biden administration, is the pandemic’s responses inherent trade-offs simply bound to divide officials based on their roles and personal preferences? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I think that’s largely true, Sean, that people in the Coronavirus Task Force in the White House and the Trump Administration at large were fighting their interests. And so, the Treasury Department had wanted nothing to do with closing off travel from China. That was going to bankrupt the airlines; the tourist industry would go crazy. We don’t even want to stop the cruise ships. There’s a big industry in Florida. And, even the public health contingent was at odds with itself, and with its history. It was public health orthodoxy, for instance, that shutting off travel doesn’t help in a pandemic. By the time you get around to it, the disease had already jumped across the border. 

The public health contingent was fixated on the idea that this was a virus-like influenza, and that was not it. For one thing, it was marked by a lot of asymptomatic infections, which had we known that our response would have been different. But it was that paradigm that was in the head of the public health officials—masks and such things wouldn’t be that useful in that case—that allowed this thing to get ahead of us. And then there was just a sense of defensiveness, especially in some of the failing institutions in our public health establishments, such as the CDC and the FDA. They were not up to the task, and they were covering their ass and that cost us untold numbers of lives. 

SEAN SPEER: Let’s talk about one of those failures. While the book observes that Operation Warp Speed may have contributed to expedited progress on vaccines, it also highlights, by contrast, the kind of debacle with respect to COVID-19 tests that remain in short supply even today. What in your view happened? What went wrong when it came to testing? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, first of all, CDC was known worldwide for its excellence in developing tests. And so, nobody outside of the institution could have imagined that it would fumble the ball so badly. One can say that incompetence made a huge difference, and it did because when the FDA went to examine what was going on, they found almost instantly that the lab was contaminated. And why was it contaminated? They were processing tests of people who were infected in the same laboratory as they were developing the test. 

So, there was nothing wrong with the test; they were accurately determining that there was virus there. The other thing that hasn’t really been said in this is corruption, scientific corruption. The CDC knew, at least the elements that were in control of developing and sending out the test, they knew it was a failure. They knew it was going to fail 30 percent of the time, at least, and yet they went ahead and set out the test and didn’t tell anybody. That’s corrupt. It’s not just incompetent. They’re lying about it, and how are we to excuse that? Has anybody been held to account? No. So, will corruption be rooted out? Not unless people are held to account.

SEAN SPEER: I think listeners will hear a common thread throughout your answers about some deep structural issues that explain the American government’s suboptimal response to the pandemic. Lawrence, what’s interesting when reading your book is it reminded me in some ways of your 2006 book, The Looming Tower, which tells the story of the U.S. government’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the 9/11 attacks. Is there a common lesson here between these two separate experiences about the American state capacity to respond to crisis? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, the way I look at it, Sean, is that, yeah, both 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic were failures of intelligence. And I mean, I had written a novel that came out in the middle of the pandemic that was about a pandemic that would—and I had done this research, talking to public health officials employed by the U.S. government who told me that there was going to be a pandemic, we’re overdue for one; it was going to come anytime and this is what it would look like. And so, I translated all that into a novel. And the Trump administration discarded the Obama playbook for pandemics but they had their own workshops. So, they had essentially a rulebook for how to govern a pandemic, and they didn’t pay attention to their own rules. So, incompetence is a big part of it. 

But basically, when we talk about intelligence, we’re always trying to get intelligence about what other nations are doing to us, are planning to do. I think where we are really failing in intelligence is knowing what kind of country we are. We should do more examination about what is America now, because people have these misguided ideas and antiquated ideas about America, and we’re not that country anymore. We’re not the country that won World War Two. We’re not the country that created the Great Society. We’re not that country anymore, and we should either face up to it or change. And so far, I don’t see that we’ve done either very well. 

SEAN SPEER: If I can stay on the topic of your previous book for a minute. The 9/11 attacks, of course, ultimately led to sweeping legislative and institutional reforms. What do you anticipate the takeaways will be from the inadequacies of the pandemic response? Do you envision 9/11-like changes in the law or the organizations involved in the pandemic response? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I don’t know. I’m not sure how we’re going to, in the long-term, react to this. I had talked to a medical historian in Bologna, Italy, Gianna Palmata, and I asked her, “In the sweep of history, what pandemic does this resemble in your mind?” And she said, what they thought of was the Black Plague in Italy in the 14th century, and not in terms of the scale of death—I mean, it killed a third of Europe. But what happened with the plague is this was in the middle of the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages. And medicine was, in some extent, based on astrology. So, people began to realize that whatever they were doing didn’t work. They understood that their societies were in some way a failure, and feudalism—primitive medicals and discounting science—all those things were leading society down a dark road. And that realization is what opened the minds, and the open minds is what led to the Renaissance. So, one can say that the Renaissance was really the child of the Black Plague. 

Now, America faces great challenges and has in recent history. Let’s start with World War Two—you became the strongest country in the history of the world. And then in the Great Depression, we reformed our economy and our society in the middle of the Depression, making it stronger and more compassionate, and more competent. But then 9/11, we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and tortured people in Guantanamo. It’s not a guarantee that a tragedy can lead to a kind of enlightenment, social enlightenment. But it has in the past; it could again. On the other hand, we could simply try to put this past us as people all over the world did with the 1918 flu. You know, very little was learned, I can say. Socially in America, it led to kind of the roaring 20s. I mean, women’s suffrage came about but you know, it was a giddy, aimless period in our history. And it feels kind of like what we’re going through now. 

SEAN SPEER: Just a couple of final questions, Lawrence. I’m struck that a couple of times you referred to the Cold War as crucial to understanding the evolution of American politics and society and so on. Do you think that the pandemic will be a catalyst for a growing U.S.-Chinese rivalry that some scholars and commentators have actually described as a new Cold War or Cold War 2.0? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I think it’s headed in that direction. It’s not necessary that it be that way. What stands in the way of a Cold War with China is the interdependence of each of the countries. Economically, we’re very much wed, and so there are reasons not to go in that direction. And both sides are responsible for the loggerheads that we’re at now. It’s not just an American problem: China has behaved very poorly, and may well be responsible for the creation of this virus, but we don’t know and we won’t know. The only way we will know is some whistleblower in the lab says something or we find the animal in nature that may have been infected and given it to humans. Then we would know, but until then, China will remain under suspicion. 

And it’s rough way with other countries—it has adopted this warrior diplomacy—it’s losing friends all over the world. It’s a mystery whether you could call that diplomacy. I mean, it’s sort of the opposite. China is making itself felt as a brute, and America’s making itself felt as a feckless form of power. And so, it’s a bad combination right now, and I think both countries have a much stronger reason to get along than they do to fight each other. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll come to their senses. 

SEAN SPEER: Final question. We’ve talked a bit today about the importance of trust and social cohesion as crucial ingredients in responding to a crisis. Lawrence, you won’t be surprised to hear that Canada has a great interest in American society restoring a sense of trust and cohesion and purpose. Is there any reason to be optimistic? Do you see seeds in any aspect of American society for the reinvigoration of the trust, cohesion, and purpose that really was at the core of the rise of America in the 20th century? 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, look, the things that are encouraging, one, is the movement of science. I think, just immunology took a giant leap. The mRNA vaccines—the mRNA had been around for a while, but never widely used, and now the new designs in microbiology that has taken place to create these new vaccines. Also, the paradigm of Operation Warp Speed, where the government for the first time in such a long time got wholeheartedly behind a scientific endeavour, and it succeeded. Yes, there are a lot of science deniers in our society, and we have a tremendous amount of work to do to try to disenchant the people who are following these illusory cults like QAnon and the kind of MAGA berserk-ness that took over America. 

There’s a lot of work ahead to change that, but the nice thing now is we know. The pandemic was like an X-ray into our society. So, you see all the broken places, and now we know, and you can’t repair a society without knowing what’s wrong. And I think at least we know what’s wrong. Whether we have the national determination to actually remedy those problems and restore ourselves to moral and intellectual and economic strength, that’s the question. And every day I worry about it and pray that we can make that change. And if that’s the feeling that most Americans have, then we will. 

SEAN SPEER: Well Lawrence, if good intelligence starts at home, people would be wise to read your book, The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID. I was honoured to speak with you and get your insights and analysis of this extraordinary time in American life. Thank you for joining us for today’s Hub Dialogue. 

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Been a pleasure for me too, Sean. Thank you.

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