The Pandemic Century is a look at the last century or so of infectious disease outbreaks which picks up some illustrative examples in order to… well, the stated purpose is to discuss “panic, hysteria and hubris”, but I’m not sure that I ever felt there was a coherent argument going on here. There are a lot of interesting bits, mostly when he focuses on the investigation of what’s causing disease, or the social/political measures taken to ameliorate disease. I didn’t know a lot about, for example, the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, and Honigsbaum does break it down well and explain the historical context.
It’s just not clear exactly where he’s going with this. At one and the same time, he decries the panic around certain pandemics, while also showing that the response to many of them wasn’t fast enough. I suppose you can do that and be advocating ever-greater focus on detecting and understanding emerging infectious diseases, but it feels off. Is he correct that we still don’t always understand what we’re looking for? Yes. But… scientists are always working on improving this stuff; it’s not news that the unknown unknown is always going to be a risk. That doesn’t mean what we’re already doing is wrong.
On the level of pure prose, well, I mostly found it readable but there are choice bits like this: “If SARS was a calamity for Toronto, for Hong Kong it was a disaster.” Those are the same thing, Mark. Those are the same thing. One is not worse than the other, which is what that sentence construction requires.
It feels… to some extent, it feels like it parrots the understanding of other writers, without actually driving toward a particular conclusion of its own. And where those understandings conflict, we get that weird juxtaposition of “everyone is panicking too much” and “we’re not panicking enough because there are things we don’t know about yet”. There’s also a bit where Honigsbaum tries to present the understanding that human/animal interaction is a powerful vector for novel diseases as his own and new in some way, when it’s basically a parroting of David Quammen’s Spillover.
There’s nothing new here, ultimately, just some different illustrative examples. I found it enjoyable, and even informative when it came to facts about particular diseases, but there’s no stunning new insight.