c.2020, Bloomsbury
355 pages

Your fingers are raw and wrinkly.

That’s because sanitizer is your friend, you use a lot of soap and water, and there’s no way you’re going to risk some sort of nasty virus this winter. But the virus, where do we go now? In “Unprepared,” compiled and edited by Jon Sternfeld, you first have to know where we’ve been.

On Dec. 31, as the first few notes of “Auld Lang Syne” began to play, Chinese officials quietly warned citizens that they’d confirmed seven cases of SARS from a seafood market in Wuhan. Chances are, the average American didn’t know it.

Five days later, 59 people in Wuhan were sick with the virus.

By January 21, 300 Chinese victims had fallen ill, a fact that National Public Radio reported, and the CDC in Atlanta confirmed America’s first case of 2019-nCoV in Washington state; the following day, President Donald Trump said the situation was “under control.” A month later, the stock market “slumped” in response to what was now called coronavirus.

By early March, there were 90,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide. Many of those were in the U.S. and the pandemic was spreading despite President Trump’s public assertion that things were “fine.” Americans wanted tests, but access was lacking; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical personnel was starting to run out. On March 7, there were “around” 200 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S.; three days later, that had more than tripled. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIAID suggested that Americans would have to “hunker down significantly” to squash the virus. African Americans were particularly hard-hit by illness. Businesses temporarily shuttered and unemployment rose.

By May, Americans were frustrated about shutdowns, mask mandates, job loss and deaths. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta said, “This is chaos …”

On May 25, George Floyd died on a street in Minneapolis and protests broke out in almost every major city in America.

On June 5, there were more than 875,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. …

For sure, readers of “Unprepared” will notice one important thing: it’s not finished.

That should come as no big surprise; compiler-editor Jon Sternfeld admits in his author’s note that he compiled only just so far, and that he “wouldn’t venture to guess” what would happen after he penned his note last summer. It’s probably just as well; who could’ve ever accurately predicted the last four months?

Despite its we-know-what-happens cliffhanger, though, “Unprepared” is too much, and that may be because we’ve lived what’s here and it’s still pretty fresh in most readers’ minds. And yet, reading it makes the last year feel like a new shock, like knowing a stove is hot and touching it anyway. Watching the virus arrive in this oral history — this must have been what Dust Storm victims felt like.

“Unprepared” is not an easy thing. It’s not cut-and-dried, nor is it complimentary to many politicians; instead, you’re left with your own thoughts, fears, and a story to complete. It’s a sobering book, and there’s no way to sanitize that.

*     *     *

Sometimes, you crave more information, so look for “Plagues, Pandemics and Viruses: From the Plague of Athens to COVID-19” by Heather E. Quinlan (Visible Ink Press), which is a wide look at frightening times throughout history, or “The Rules of Contagion” by Adam Kucharski (Basic Books), a book about how things spread, from ideas to fads, and violence to diseases.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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