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What to read during a Holiday without Santa: A Pandemic Christmas Reading List

With Christmas just around the corner, I would like to take the opportunity to recommend some books to read for your self or to give away. Since this Christmas most likely will be like no other Christmas for most of us, this also means more time for reading. This has for obvious reasons been an unprecedented year (mildly put) where people now experience a second or third wave of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. With global cases surpassing 70 million and global deaths approaching 1.6 million, this pandemic will be with us for some time, even if vaccination now have begun in some countries.

So, if you still feel that you would like to know more and understand this pandemic, there are some great books out there.

Who’s In Charge? Leadership during Epidemics, Bioterror Attacks, and Other Public Health Crises

If you want to take a dive into why public health response works different between and within countries, Dr Laura H Kahn has the answer with her most appropriate book for the COVID-19 response Who’s In Charge? Leadership during Epidemics, Bioterror Attacks, and Other Public Health Crises. A large part of COVID-19 has been focused on how countries have and currently are handling the pandemic, since different countries have different public health and health care systems. The balance and trust between politics and science have also been marked as an essential component to be able to respond to an outbreak of a new infection. In her studies of public health leadership, , Laura Kahn’s developed two models to explain this. 

  1. In the first model, the political elected leader is the primary decision-maker and receives expert advice from the appointed bureaucratic leader. 
  2. In the first model, the political elected leader is the primary decision-maker and receives expert advice from the appointed bureaucratic leader. 

Now, both of these models can work as long as the different people involved understand and agree to their roles, but as we have seen around the world, there can also be huge problems when people do not agree to their roles. 

Laura Kahn also teach an online course Bats, Ducks, and Pandemics: An Introduction to One Health Policy that is offered by Princeton University on the MOCC platform Coursera that is highly recommended.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond 

Another essential read is prizewinning journalist Sonia Shah’s book Pandemic, widely acknowledged and prized for its accuracy of predicting where we are today. Here, Sonia Shah uses famous pandemics from throughout human history to explain epidemiology and the science behind the spread of various pathogens.

Without proper surveillance systems and needed investments to prevent pandemic threats it comes as no surprise that we are where we are today. As late as September 2019 the joint WHO and World Bank group Global Preparedness Monitoring Board released their first Annual report on global preparedness for health emergencies with the central finding that the world needed to proactively establish the systems needed to detect and control potential disease outbreaks.

Over 300 infectious diseases have newly emerged or re-emerged in new territory over the past 50 years, and epidemiologists have been predicting that that one of them will cause a disruptive, deadly pandemic for years.

Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present

Also historian Frank Snowden examines the fallout from recent epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Ebola and the question of the world’s preparedness for the next generation of diseases. With his sweeping history Epidemics and Society charts the impact of infectious diseases from the Black Death to the present. Snowden’s broader thesis is that infectious diseases have shaped social evolution no less powerfully than have wars, revolutions and economic crises.

Betrayal of Trust: the Collapse of Global Public Health

As I have written earlier, a book that inspired me already as a graduate student in public health was the book Betrayal of Trust by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett. At the time, as a PhD-student, I did not think of public health and genetics in the same sentence, but this changed upon reading this book. Garrett really encouraged me to broaden my view on public health and understand all public health problems as essentially global public health problems.

You see, Garrett had not just written a book handling the present and future public health, but it was also a guide to its history, in which Garrett describes, for instance, how Russian scientists had developed a genetically modified strain of anthrax that was resistant to all vaccines and antibiotics, and how nations voluntarily created genetically modified “superbugs.” The scientists she portrayed combined basic biology and public health in an unprecedented manner.  All of a sudden, public health was also a tale of global security and biological warfare; without the knowledge of modern genetics it would be impossible to comprehend such things as viruses, antibiotic resistance, immunology and inherited disease. The book is a must-read for every public health student (and everyone else).

You will find a longer description of how this book affected me in a post I wrote for PLOS Biologue in 2015

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance

Actually, Betrayal of Trust wasn’t Laurie Garretts first encounter with infectious disease and newly arrived threats to public health. Already in 1994 she wrote a seminal book about our new emerging threats like HIV, Ebola that science couldn’t understand or conquer, despite the arrogant approach of biomedicine that infectious diseases was a thing of the past. To understand where are today with COVID-19 this is an essential read.


The Plague 

If you haven’t already picked it and read is it time to get the first official book of the pandemic – Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste) by Nobel laureate Camus. During the spring lockdowns around the world, sales of the book were spiking. Suddenly, everyone was buying it. For many, the book’s fictive chronicle of the measures taken in the city of Oran against a death-dealing disease that strikes in 1940 sometimes seemed to blur into the government announcements reshaping people’s lives during COVID-19.

The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

I would like to end my Christmas recommendations with a non-COVID-19 book, but that was released in 2020, also focusing on an important subject that ought to be in the spotlight but is not. For some reason namely, a still neglected topic is nuclear weapons, despite the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons will go into effect and enter into force on 22 January 2021.

Today, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is just as great as it was nearly 40 years ago. But the sense of urgency has since waned. We need a wake-up call, and former defense secretary William J. Perry, together with leading nuclear policymaker Tom Collina, has given us just that. Their new book is hopefully the alarm the world needs.

So, with these recommendations, I would like to wish all a Merry Christmas with the hope to able to celebrate an ordinary Christmas 2021.

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