If 2020 ends up being remembered as a pivotal year along the lines of 1914, perhaps as the year the 21st century actually began, COVID-19 is likely to be the main cause. Much of what was considered “normal” in everything from everyday life to geopolitics has been swept away. What hasn’t changed, however, is that publishing, like nature, abhors a vacuum: books on the subject have already started to arrive.
Whether Devadas Krishnadas’s new book Confronting COVID-19 is really “first to study the coronavirus crisis through the multiple lenses of public health, politics and the economy from an international perspective” as claimed in the marketing materials, it must be close to it. His publisher Marshall Cavendish has published it, they say, “on an accelerated timeline”. In the foreword, Paul M Vaaler of the University of Minnesota cites the oft-quoted line from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who—when asked about the influence of the French Revolution—replied: “Too early to say.” Indeed.
This is not, I hasten to add, a blow-by-blow journalistic account of the pandemic. Krishnadas takes, as he says in the preface, an “evidence-based approach to the analysis”; it is perhaps a disturbing sign of the times that he feels the need to mention this as if there were an alternative. It is, however, a fair self-assessment. Confronting COVID-19 is a cogent, matter-of-fact run-through of the public- and international policy (as opposed to epidemiological) issues, ranging through governance, healthcare, economics, politics and global economics. Importantly, however, Devadas hails from Singapore’s public policy community; given that the Western Pacific has on the whole managed better than elsewhere, it is good to have a considered East Asian perspective in circulation. The book is more uniformly global than it might have been had it emanated from, say, the United States. Four of his seven case studies—New Zealand, Singapore, China, Hong Kong—are from the Asia-Pacific; the other three are Sweden, the US and Canada.
There may be little in Confronting COVID-19 that will not be known to those who have kept up with the pandemic’s development, but Devadas has put it all—in summarized, and sometimes highly summarized, form—in one place. He is careful to show linkages between politics, public policy, economic policy, trade and international relations. There are (generally clear) statistics and charts. Devadas includes mention of what might seem to be somewhat peripheral but nevertheless possibly momentous consequences such as the effect of increased telecommuting on the future shape of work.
The subtitle is “A Strategic Playbook for Leaders and Decision Makers”: one would hope that “leaders and decision makers” already have this information. The “playbook” part—Devadas provides a set of recommendations at the global, regional and national levels—is, again, straightforward: a policy advisor would have to be relatively oblivious not to have come across these analyses and recommendations before. The value is in Devadas’s interdisciplinary approach and non-country-specific viewpoint. That he treats health policy, international relations and micro- and macro-economics with equal rigor, is a salutary reminder of how indivisible COVID-19 problems have proven to be.
If one were to offer a course on the pandemic, Devadas’s book would make a good textbook—for next few months at any rate; it can be hard to know how long any given publication will remain relevant.
Any thoughtful reader will likely have quibbles; I have a few. The specific examples in the section on “Innovations in the Economy” are drawn largely from Singapore; these are quite possibly representative of places elsewhere, but are not self-evidently so. “Singapore”, indeed, appears more than 100 times in the book, about the same number of times as “China” and more than the “United States”; “Italy” is mentioned only about a dozen. Somewhat more consequentially, in his discussion of economic policy, Devadas omits mention of so-called “Modern Monetary Theory” or MMT. (At the risk of oversimplifying, MMT discounts the significance of public debt, as long as it is issued in a country’s own currency.) It has been argued that the USA’s COVID-relief stimulus (to say nothing of the major tax cuts which preceded it) has been, without acknowledging it, MMT in action. But the target audience presumably knows not to consider the book—or, indeed, any other—as definitive.
One can’t however help but wonder at the end of the book whether people matter as much if not more than policy-makers. East Asians did not in general wait for formal mask advisories before donning them. The evidence is that it made a world of difference.