My Book Is Out Today

“The Wisdom of Plagues: Lessons From 25 Years of Covering Pandemics” will offend. And, I hope, offer some good ideas.

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
3 min readJan 9, 2024

My book, The Wisdom of Plagues, Lessons From 25 Years of Covering Pandemics, was released today by Simon & Schuster.

They also let me narrate the audio version. I’m not the ideal reader — the recording studio producer must have said a thousand times, “Can we do that again please, more slowly?” But I know how to pronounce most of the words and I do a fair imitation of myself.

I talk briefly about it on video here. I also just appeared on Kara Swisher’s podcast “On” and will soon be on Mike Pesca’s “The Gist.”

The book will offend both the right and the left. I explain how I calculate that bad leadership by the Trump administration cost us 540,000 lives. But I also blame the Biden administration for not moving more quickly and more harshly with vaccine mandates, vaccine passports and travel restrictions.

I repeat the words I’ve been advised by friends to never utter: “The longer I cover public health, the more of a fascist I become.” I explain why. We constantly let lives be lost because our public health leaders focus too much on civil liberties, privacy, projecting a warm bedside manner, sex-positive messaging and avoiding offending anyone.

Some sections are memoir. I describe moments like trying to get my New York Times colleagues to believe me that a pandemic was coming. Moments like almost being kidnapped in a gorilla-hunting village in Cameroon. And moments like recently discovering that, at the very dawn of the pandemic, some top scientists misled me when I was trying to check out rumors that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese lab.

Some sections are historical. I describe the roots of human illnesses in our decision 11,000 years ago to domesticate animals, and enumerate the effects of pandemics on Athens and Sparta, the crumbling Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Napoleon’s conquests and World Wars I and II.

Some sections are journalistic. I describe why the world failed for decades to protect women in Africa against AIDS. I detail successes like Vietnam’s fight against tuberculosis, Egypt’s against hepatitis C and Cuba’s against AIDS.

Some are prescriptive. I explain why I think we need a Pentagon for disease, should ban religious exemptions to vaccines, should sometimes let Big Pharma break antitrust laws, and should recruit “witch doctors” into the medical system.

I don’t dwell on my departure from The Times — that just seemed like a distraction from the message. (But I have sometimes been asked about it as part of doing publicity for the book.)



Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer