The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic have left us with many lingering questions: How long can a virus live? Why weren’t we better prepared to handle the virus? How long will vaccines keep us safe from the virus and its variants? How can we distribute vaccines and other medical interventions equitably to protect and save human lives? What kinds of robust public health policies do we need in place to help us mitigate the effects of widespread outbreaks in the future? Scientist Joseph Osmundson answers these and other questions in his luminous and stunning Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between.
As Osmundson dives into the intricacies of science and medicine, he also takes time to consider the emotional toll of gauging health risks. In a world full of viruses—and especially in light of the most recent pandemic—we will always face the risk of infection, he says. He thus challenges readers to “reframe the very notion of risk, of fear” since “the more we all minimize risk, the less there is to fear.” Though perhaps eschewing this fear is easier said than done since, as he writes, “there are 250 million viruses in every 0.001 liters of ocean water, and so 7,393,387,354, more than 7 billion viruses, in 1 single fluid ounce, a mouthful.” Moreover, all viruses are so different from one another that what we learn about HIV or Ebola, for example, may not help us understand or diminish the effects of coronaviruses.
As a queer person, Osmundson candidly shares the moments he has calculated the risk of contracting HIV while having sex. At the same time, Osmundson points out that being queer provides him and others with a “legacy and a history of care even in the face of systemic oppression.” Queer people, he observes, have been “training for this moment—to sacrifice, in the face of a virus, to care for one another.”
Despite the ubiquity of viruses and their variety, Osmundson illustrates that humans and viruses evolve together. Recognizing this provides hope for all of us, he insists, especially through the development of vaccines. In addition, we can learn from our responses to HIV and COVID-19 and find the paths we need to follow for more robust public health: research into each virus, development of drugs and vaccines, community-led vaccination and health programs, and universal healthcare.
A collection that weaves together the raggedness of the personal with the chaos of the political, Virology will take its place next to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journal as a model for cultural criticism. Sparkling prose, glittering insights, lucid thinking and accessible writing about sometimes difficult topics makes Virology a must-read. It’s one of the best science and medicine books of the year.