A Pandemic Literary Genre

December 2021 Vol 14, No 4 - Editorial
David B. Nash, MD, MBA
Editor-in-Chief, American Health & Drug Benefits, and Founding Dean Emeritus, Jefferson College of Population Health, Philadelphia, PA
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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives, including our current literature—scholarly as well as popular (or mass market) publications. Our readers have no doubt been absorbed in scanning the peer-reviewed scientific literature in a score of important journals over the past 18 months. However, the pandemic-related popular literature, in book form, is evolving at a record pace and is the focus of this editorial.

This new “genre,” as exemplified by 6 books that are briefly described below, has rapidly come to market. In my view, this genre is divided into at least 3 distinct categories, according to the voices of the authors. I label these categories as the “scholarly thought leaders,” the “advocates and insiders,” and the “new and emerging voices.” Let me describe each category and offer some relevant examples. I have selected these particular new books as the best representative examples of this overall evolving genre.

Scholarly thought leaders. For example, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, by Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD,1 is a stellar example of the contribution from a scholarly thought leader. Dr Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, where he also serves as the Director of the Human Nature Lab. He is a famous sociologist, physician, and epidemiologist, with a long and distinguished list of previously published books and scholarly articles.

The cultural thesis of Apollo’s Arrow is that plagues have been around for centuries, and they ultimately transform the social order. One unique aspect of his analysis is to vaccinate persons who are “popular” and well-connected—no doubt drawing on his lifetime body of work on social network theory. According to a recent article, Dr Christakis contends that vaccinating the well-connected will reduce the time it takes to achieve herd immunity.2 He does not, however, offer insights on how to operationalize this notion.

Advocates and insiders. In this second category, I offer 2 books as outstanding examples of this corpus. The first is Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health, by Leana Wen, MD.3 I am confident that our readers recognize her name as a passionate and articulate physician spokesperson on CNN, and a columnist for the Washington Post.

Dr Wen uses her amazing life story—daughter of very poor Chinese immigrants, starting college at age 13, Rhodes Scholar, and big city (Baltimore) Health Commissioner—as a metaphor for the pandemic. My favorite take-home message from her book is, “Public health saved your life today—you just don’t know it. You don’t know it because good public health is invisible. It becomes visible only in its absence, when it is underfunded and ignored, a bitter truth laid bare as never before by the devastation of COVID-19.”3

The second example of an insider is Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response, by Andy Slavitt, MBA.4 Politically astute readers will surely recognize Mr Slavitt as President Obama’s Director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and more recently, for a short time, as President Biden’s White House Senior Advisor for the COVID-19 response, where he oversaw direct communications with the public about the pandemic.

Mr Slavitt’s book is akin to a political tell-all. He was there at the table, and he saw stuff that you would not believe, and he cannot wait to tell you all about it. Perhaps Preventable will endure as a codification of the sad political infighting and failures of leadership at the highest levels in our government. It reminds me of a score of inside Washington, DC, political memoirs too many to count here.

New and emerging voices. My third and final category has 3 entries. The first is Care After Covid: What the Pandemic Revealed is Broken in Healthcare and How to Reinvent It, by the young Indian American physician, Shantanu Nundy, MD.5 He is a representative of a new breed of physician entrepreneurs who have embraced digital technology and the ethos of the private sector—in this case with a firm called Accolade—to solve the healthcare crisis. We will no doubt be hearing more from Dr Nundy as he fine-tunes his emerging voice.

A second emerging voice belongs to Jan Berger, MD, and Julie Slezak, MSPH, and their new book, Re-Engaging in Trust: The Missing Ingredient to Fixing Healthcare.6 Although not exclusively pandemic-focused, the authors contend that trust is crucial to any successful system, and healthcare has lost this focus, no doubt exacerbated by COVID-19. Dr Berger and Ms Slezak have self-published this new book and we can only hope that their heartfelt message will get some traction in this now-hypercompetitive pandemic book marketplace.

The third and final example of an emerging voice in the pandemic is Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary, by Timothy Snyder, PhD, Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University.7 I could have just as easily assigned Professor Snyder to the scholarly voices category, because he is a prominent scholar of the Holocaust, but this is his first venture into healthcare. Professor Snyder describes how his own near-death experience from a complex series of medical errors (regular readers will recognize my long-term work in this area8) has given him new insight into the broader failures of our attack on COVID-19.

Professor Snyder contends that we will not be able to fix our healthcare system until we fully embrace patient care as a human right. He traces this notion to his previous work, and the specific failure of the United States to codify patient care as a human right in public policy, as enshrined in the post–World War II Nuremberg Code.9 This is a novel and compelling thesis, in my view.

There will no doubt be many more books in the emerging mass market postpandemic genre. I am happy to add that soon my own voice will also join this important conversation. More about my book in a future column.

What new postpandemic book is on your nightstand? The authors I portrayed here are carefully helping us to frame some critical issues about our failed healthcare system that deserve a broad societal dialogue. I sincerely hope that our readers will be an important part of this conversation.

As always, you can reach me at my e-mail address, which is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

References

  1. Christakis NA. Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark; 2020.
  2. Klein JM. After the storm: Nicholas Christakis speculates on the pandemic’s ultimate social impacts, and finds cause for optimism. Pennsylvania Gazette. 2021;119:51-52.
  3. Wen L. Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books; 2021.
  4. Slavitt A. Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press; 2021.
  5. Nundy S. Care After Covid: What the Pandemic Revealed is Broken in Healthcare and How to Reinvent It. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2021.
  6. Berger J, Slezak J. Re-Engaging in Trust: The Missing Ingredient to Fixing Healthcare. Parker, CO: Outskirts Press; 2021.
  7. Snyder T. Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary. New York, NY: Crown; 2020.
  8. Nash DB. “Hoodoo” you think will change? Am Health Drug Benefits. 2018;11(7):332-333.
  9. Liebers DT. Health and freedom. Health Aff (Millwood). 2021;40:364-365.
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