COVID-19: An outbreak of books

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Twenty-nine years ago, Bob Weinstein told me that “every outbreak is in fact three outbreaks: spread of a pathogen, followed by an outbreak of meetings, followed by an outbreak of publications.” A pandemic adds a next level: an outbreak of books.

Cory Franklin and Bob Weinstein just published The COVID diaries 2020-2024: Anatomy of a contagion as it happened. Disclaimer: as a young investigator I spend 6 months at Cook County Hospital in Chicago back in 1995. Supervised by Bob Weinstein, I swabbed butts of patients in the medical ICU that was headed by Cory Franklin.

With almost 100 years of medical experience, Cory and Bob commented on the unfolding pandemic with 60 short opinions in the Chicago Tribune and Inside Sources between March 2020 and January 2024. Sitting on their balcony of wisdom, they looked down at what happened in Chicago, like Waldorf and Statler: yet, with self-reflection. Error is a central theme: “Error is part of science (and of science journalism). What is thought to be true today may not be true tomorrow, and placing too much confidence in today’s truths can have serious unintended consequences. We know more today than we did yesterday – but only if we learn from yesterday’s mistakes. It is important to correct errors as soon as possible, but never to deny them.”

Reading the short pieces takes you back to the beginning of “naïve optimism” and through the phases of “reality setting in”, “pessimism”, “emerging hope”, and “the virus striking back”. From the beginning they argued against closing schools and emphasized the importance of vaccination, to realize that even highly effective vaccines could not stop the virus from spreading. This is excellent reading for public health professionals and medical doctors that dream of becoming a spokesperson during a future pandemic.

They (deliberately?) stayed away from politics (soft critique nicely balanced between subsequent presidents) but gave Antoni Fauci and Neil Ferguson a kiss of death. Almost every piece begins or ends with a quote from history, from the Greek historian Herodotus to Dirty Harry (“A man has got to know his limitations”), and with great one-liners. Best learning from the first lockdown: “It is harder to sit on the couch and watch six hours on television than commonly thought – especially without sports.”

There is also a game element in the book. The day of publication of one of 60 commentaries has been changed. The first one to spot it will be acknowledged in the second edition of this book.