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3 tragic mistakes that made the 2020 pandemic worse

At key moments over the last year leaders around the globe made critical mistakes that worsened the pandemic and led to more deaths. That’s the argument put forth by the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright in “The Plague Year,” an article that fills the magazine’s entire January issue. Wright explains what went wrong in an interview with Senior National Correspondent Amna Nawaz.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The time-honored tradition of casting back on the past 12 months at the close of the year is a somber occasion this year. The coronavirus pandemic brought untold hardship and suffering that, in one way or another, touched nearly every American in 2020 and millions more around the world.

    "The New Yorker" magazine devoted nearly its entire current issue to the subject this week.

    And in his piece, "The Plague Year," staff writer and award-winning author Lawrence Wright chronicles some of the principal events and people of the pandemic and the effort to contain it, and he points to three critical moments when he says events might have turned out differently.

    Lawrence Wright, welcome back to the "NewsHour," and thanks for joining us.

    Those three critical moments, those mistakes, as you called them in your piece, they are basically a U.S. team being denied entry to China early in the pandemic, the failure of the U.S. government to have a testing plan and flawed tests being sent, and then the failure to support mask use.

    In your reporting, and everyone you talk to, how differently do you think things would be today if those three things had been done differently?

  • Lawrence Wright:

    Well, it still would have been a tragedy. It has been for every country, really.

    But the dimensions of the tragedy are so much greater in America than anywhere else. We're really an outlier in the rest of the world. And had we taken advantage of the opportunities we had from the very beginning, we would be in a lot better shape. There would be many more Americans who would be alive now.

    But starting with the very first thing, when Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, on January 3 called his counterpart in China, George Gao, Gao told him there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

    And — but the main thing was — the big secret that we didn't understand was that this was a — not like a flu. This was something that spread mainly asymptomatically.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The two other things you identified as mistakes were really strictly within the White House and the administration's control, and that was a failure to get out, real tests, flawed tests that they had sent out around the country, and then a failure to support mask use.

    Now, you talked to a number of White House insiders, and what did they tell you about what led to those decisions and those failures? What was happening inside the White House?

  • Lawrence Wright:

    Well, it was a very divided White House.

    And Matt Pottinger was the deputy national security adviser. And he was the main advocate all along, even before the public health people got on board. The Treasury and Office of Management and Budget, they were all frightened of doing anything that would disrupt the economy and so on.

    But Matt was pushing for travel bans and for mask use. And these were the two things that we could do before a vaccine arrived or any kind of real therapeutic. Matt put on a mask. He was the first person to put on a mask in the White House. And he said it felt like wearing a clown nose. And people gawked at him.

    The president asked if he was sick. And he said: No, I just want to not be the guy that goes down in history for knocking off the president with COVID-19.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You chronicle in a number of different ways — and it is striking to see how many of these antidotes there were over the last year — the number of times that President Trump publicly downplayed the threat, said, masks are voluntary, and I don't think I'm going to be wearing one.

    Is it fair, though, I wonder, because this is a once-in-a-century pandemic? And a lot of people point the blame towards the White House and President Trump. Is it fair to do that?

  • Lawrence Wright:

    There are things that he should be given credit for.

    I think Warp Speed was a great success. Getting these vaccines out in record time, this is something that we should be thankful for, especially for the scientists who developed that. And I think, also, we should give him credit for the travel bans, which were not part of the orthodoxy of public health at the time.

    But I fault him on two things. One was the politicization of our health institutions. Essentially, the CDC and FDA became captive agencies of the propaganda wing of the Trump administration. And the other thing that is — really, you really have to lay at the feet of the president, there is no national plan, even to this day.

    On March 11, I think it was, the president was in a conversation with the 50 U.S. governors, and he said, we will be standing behind you. But then he explained what that meant. If you want to get PPE, that sort of thing, do it yourself.

    And, suddenly, the governors realized it wasn't a national pandemic. There were 50 epidemics. And they were totally unprepared for this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You do tell a number of very intimate narratives about people at every stage in every different part of this pandemic and how they were affected, including those front-line health care workers that we have heard so much about, who didn't have enough PPE, who remain on the front lines trying to save people's lives today.

    What stood out to you from your conversations with them?

  • Lawrence Wright:

    Oh, gosh, it's so touching, because, in the midst of this catastrophe that has taken such a toll on our country and our spirit, there have been a number of heroes. And I was privileged to have the opportunity to write about — start with the people that are on the front line in the health industry.

    Ebony Hilton, a young black anesthesiologist in University of Virginia, who is advocating so strongly for ethnic — better outcomes in ethnic disparities in health care. It's hard for me to even begin, but Barney Graham was the one who developed the actual vaccine that we're now getting into our arms.

    The vaccine that is both Pfizer and Moderna contain the same vital protein that was designed by Barney Graham at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lawrence, it's really hard for many people to remember what the early weeks of 2020 were even like. And you call your peace "The Plague Year," but it's fair to say we're still in it. The virus isn't done with us yet.

  • Lawrence Wright:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, after looking at all the many strands of this, the political, the social, the medical, and so on, what do you think we can learn from all of those things that tell us about what our next year could look like?

  • Lawrence Wright:

    Well, I think this virus has been like an X-Ray on our society. And it allows us to see all the broken places. And it could be that now that we're so aware of them, we will do something to mend them.

    Health care, for instance. We're the only country in the world that separates clinical health care from public health. And it's lunacy to separate them. We should have a system that's unified. We should have people being able to turn to get medical care as soon as they start showing any kind of symptoms at all that.

    Also, I think a big part of what we have to fix is the disunity in our country. And it's a sad commentary that something like this, which should have brought us together, only drove us further apart.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are big challenges ahead for us as a nation, for sure.

    Lawrence Wright, your new piece, "The Plague Year," is the entirety of the latest edition of "The New Yorker."

    Thank you so much for joining us today.

  • Lawrence Wright:

    A pleasure. Thank you very much.

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