Shah weaves personal experiences with intense research that reads like a storybook. She takes us all the way from the early cholera epidemics of the 1800s (with far-too-vivid descriptions of shit-lined streets of New York City!) to the wet markets of China and explains exactly how new viruses evolve that otherwise never would if it weren’t for man-made environmental and urban changes.
The biggest point she makes is that pathogens are very much a part of nature and thus, our existence. Instead of viewing these events as external disasters, we would do well to accept their inevitability and address the threat with a holistic view of its contributors.
The book explains how existing paradigms of thought can block progress in the right direction. She tells the story of scientists who discovered early on that clean water could prevent the spread of cholera and yet, between religious and social beliefs, at one point entire societies believed that water was making things worse and went on to obliterate bathing from their daily toilet for months at a time.
It dedicates chapters to corruption and blame and how that has impeded good governance, preventive measures and the failure to protect entire populations from inevitable risks. Some fascinating tidbits: with vaccinators resorting to secretive campaigns — American vaccinators held people down to administer smallpox shots, in the Philippines, people were rounded up at gunpoint and then, in 2011, the CIA used a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign to gather intel that led to the assassination of Bin Laden — one can’t be surprised at the level of distrust some communities have of these process or those now trying to help.
Much of this is now not new information to us but it does put what we are going through into perspective and provides an eye-opening level of context. “By telling the stories of new pathogens through the lens of a historical pandemic” we can see exactly how, why and where they develop and take that seriously so that we can protect ourselves from future disasters.