Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2021

An Insider’s Plague Year, by Peter Doherty

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from Covid-19 it’s that good management of the pandemic depends on good, reliable and trustworthy information…

As retirees,  from the beginning of the pandemic The Spouse and I have had the luxury of being able to watch the daily Victorian press conference which, with a team of politicians and health experts, has educated us about what we need to know and where to find out more information that we can rely on.  But even a cursory look at social media shows that there are plenty of people who don’t understand even the simplest ideas about mask-wearing, social distancing or vaccinations, much less have an understanding of the science behind the decisions that governments have had to make.

An Insider’s Plague Year is Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty’s attempt to fill that gap.  This is the blurb:

An illuminating glimpse into the scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic from Australia’s most prominent ‘insider’

In An Insider’s Plague Year, Nobel laureate and prominent COVID-19 authority Professor Peter Doherty recounts his response to the pandemic as it developed from January 2020-February 2021. As citizens and governments around the world suddenly became acutely dependent on the capacity of scientists to understand and recommend appropriate public health policy responses to the disease, Doherty and his team were at the forefront.
In his always conversational style, Doherty systematically provides a deep understanding of the virus and of the numerous areas of knowledge that have been brought together in the fight against it. Rendering complex medical and scientific issues accessible and providing a fascinating glimpse into how health experts have worked with governments to control and manage the challenge, Doherty also turns his mind to what we can hope for in the months and years ahead, considering even larger questions about the pivotal role of science in our lives.

Most of the book is a compilation of columns from The Doherty Institute’s Setting it Straight series.  At the time of going to press, the book included issues #1 to #42; as of today, Issue #69 is the most recent at their website. (I really do recommend that you read it (here): the topic is ‘Vaccination, risk/benefit, herd immunity and passive immunity’ because it explains really clearly why — even when Australia achieves ‘herd immunity’ — those who are unvaccinated cannot expect, as is the case with many other infections, that they will be safe because the vaccinated people around them have protective antibodies.  At some stage you’re going to encounter someone who believes this, and you’ll be doing them a favour if you can explain why they can’t just rely on the rest of us getting vaccinated.

The unvaccinated can catch COVID-19 from vaccinees who are fully immune but, nonetheless, may still be breathing out some virus. We can see the consequence of that in the USA, which has around 70% of the population (aged 18 and over) fully vaccinated. As at 16 July, 2021, 99.5% of those Americans who are dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

To get the full value of reading Issue #69, however, you need to have read the earlier issues, and that’s where this book is really useful.  It’s not a book to scamper through; although it’s written for the general reader, it covers complex science which will be more or less digestible depending on your existing knowledge of science.  (I did science up to Form 4, but I have a ‘coach’ a.k.a. The Spouse who has a B.Sc majoring in microbiology.  My father was a research chemist but his speciality was surface coatings a.k.a. paint so while he taught me a lot about how to paint a fence so that the paintwork lasts for 25 years+ (which is more than the average professional housepainter can achieve), he was no expert on anything relevant to C-19).

If you take your time to work through Setting it Straight, you’ll have a good understanding of the basics, and you’ll be in a better decision to understand why our team of Chief Health Officers make the decisions that they do.

And as a bonus, the last few chapters include some interesting commentary on other aspects of science in Australia!

Author: Peter Doherty
Title: An Insider’s Plague Year
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780522877519, pbk., 246 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. I was going to say that I’m impressed that he got a book out on the topic so quickly, but then I read that it was based on what he’s already written. Still that’s good because people won’t necessarily find that. The lack of understanding of basic ideas, let alone the ability to think things through, is quite breathtaking really. Sounds like a good book but like most such books it’s unlikely to get to the hands of those who really needed.

    My 30-something daughter had her AZ shot last week and I’m very proud of her!

    I heard an Indonesian politician talk about vaccine hesitancy over there as herd stupidity! I think it was your Dan who said we can start opening up when all who WANT to be vaccinated are. That made good sense to me. The rest will just have to take their chances and possibly learn the lesson the hard way. That’s a shame but c’est la vie I suppose.


    • Yes, I agree with you and with Dan, that those who choose not to can take their chances, but there will remain the problem of people who can’t for medical reasons have it. I guess, for them, there will be precautions that they will have to take the same as they would for any other infectious disease.
      I know that there is research into solving this problem for the immuno-compromised cohort because I’m a donor to the Walter and Eliza Institute.
      The other thing to bear in mind is that if the refusers are concentrated in one place e.g. Byron Bay which is notorious for its anti-vaxxers, then they will have the problem of overwhelming their hospital… and that means that other people there who aren’t anti-vaxxers won’t get treatment.


      • Yes re those who can’t. I do feel for them but as you say they always have to manage infection risks. This one is particularly scary for them I expect and that’s sad.

        And yes, the overrun hospital issue is a concern. I don’t know the figures for Byron Bay. My sense is that there may be a concentration there but that their actual numbers are low. Still, how big is the hospital?


        • Don’t know. Let’s hope for their sakes that it’s big enough…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. PS I can’t believe how many press conferences I’ve watched over the last year or so. A lifetime’s full and more!


  4. If you have been lucky enough to have sensible daily communications from those in charge, I do envy you… We have had lies, misinformation, obfuscation and pure nonsense from the start. Which is no doubt why our country is in the mess it is….


    • It never ceases to amaze me that Britain seems to have descended into this unrecognisable place. Stay safe and well, as best you can x

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Unfortunately, the people who need to read this book will never read it. I work in an office full of raging anti-vaxxers and I have given up trying to justify why I have had the jab (my second one is booked in next month). I was very relieved to meet a supplier today who was excited to tell me she’d been double vaxxed (she’s in her 30s) and I wanted to hug her out of sheer delight of finally meeting someone else in Perth who believes in vaccines!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s true, but its value lies in people like you and me reading it and being confident and knowledgeable about what we need to know. And I would also suggest that reading ‘How to Talk About Climate Change in ways that make a difference’ by Rebecca Huntley is a very important adjunct, because it teaches strategies for dealing with The Unbelievers.
      For example, while I don’t think for one moment that you should have to justify your choice to anyone, a possibly useful response is to say that you’ve done it because you love your family. You could never forgive yourself if you had no symptoms but passed it on to someone you love, and you want to be able to visit your parents interstate and that won’t happen till everyone is vaccinated. An answer like that has an *emotional* appeal, and while the person you say it to may give no indication that it’s had any effect, it may well get them thinking.


    • Unfortunately, perhaps, Perth has been little affected – like the ACT – in terms of cases so people mightn’t feel the urgency. We’ve not had a case for 13 months, but I think there is urgency here because we are surrounded by NSW and not that far from Victoria, so we are more generally anxious I’d say.


      • Yes, that, but also I work with a certain cohort that isn’t particularly well educated and largely male.


        • Yes, I know people like that. What we need is for some yobbo that they admire to jolly them into it. (Sporting heroes that behave badly come to mind.)

          Liked by 1 person

        • Ah….


      • Understandable to be very anxious at the moment, NSW is out of control…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. The book sounds fascinating. We’ve just been on holiday in Switzerland, where it’s very relaxed because everyone seems to find it perfectly normal to mask up as soon as they enter an enclosed space or on busy streets, but most of the time we were outside so even more like ‘back to normal’. I even went in my first supermarket! It was rather a shock to come back to the Netherlands and discover that I was the only person in a mask at the supermarket. Nerve wracking, especially as most of the country was still on the EU red list last week. Now, please do tell us the secret of painting fences to last 25 years. My raised beds have lasted barely two.


    • I’ve seen the stats for the Netherlands… it’s really dreadful, I hope you stay safe.
      The secret of outdoor painting is, good preparation of course, then one coat of red primer, two coats of pink undercoat, and two coats of oil paint. Don’t paint when there’s any moisture in the air from humidity or previous/threatening rain, and allow 4-5 days in between to allow each coat to dry properly. Voila! An impenetrable barrier against the weather and my fence is coming up to 30 years without needing so much as a touch-up.
      And that’s why professionals can’t achieve it. They paint to a schedule, customers want the job done promptly, rain hail or shine, and they use water-based paint because it dries quickly.


      • Mr Gums would be proud of you! He likes to do jobs like this himself (ourselves) because he/we will do the preparation. Even if you wanted to pay the professionals a commensurate rate for doing it properly they often don’t want to because it’s harder and they can do tow or three jobs and make the same money. At least that’s how it comes across to us.


        • So true. Alas, I’m not safe up a ladder any more, so I had to stop my house-painting activities. The ‘professionals’ who did our bathroom did a woeful job…


          • No, there comes a time. Mr Gums is still doing stuff on the roof which, because of sloping ground is double storey height at one end. It’s not particularly steeply pitched – he says – but it gives me the heebies.


            • Every year men end up in hospital for that kind of do-it-yourself work. My father was the same. But here, we just pay someone and feel smug about the fact that we used to do it better ourselves.


              • I know … I tell him but he says he’ll know when he can no longer do it. He is a cautious person but … he’s also an engineer who wants things done properly. What will win!!!

                Liked by 1 person

      • The good news, for now, is that infection rates were high and are going down again, but as anyone above 16 (I believe) who wants to be vaccinated, has been, so hospitalisation rates are really low and virtually no deaths at the moment. What happens after everyone returns from holidays abroad is nail-biting stuff. The Swiss mountains felt safe. Not so sure about other parts of Europe. Thanks for the painting tips. There’s no telling when we’ll ever get such a long rain free period. I’m having extreme difficulty getting my washing dry, dodging unpredictable torrential downpours this summer. Still, it’s great for the garden… and the slugs love it!


  7. I’m yet to see a press conference but I am vaccinated, AZ, hopefully with a Moderna booster next year. Crossing borders keeps me in isolation but the few people I know are vaxed. I know it won’t happen but I’d like masking to be normal in enclosed spaces – we might wipe out the flu as well as Covid.


    • Masks are excellent when I walk past inconsiderate people smoking on the street.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have a friend in Byron Bay who is such a fervent anti-vaxxer she was furious with me with I took my dog for his yearly vaccination at the vet! I don’t hold up much hope for Byron I’m afraid. Another friend of mine up the coast is happily entertaining friends from Sydney who drove up to stay despite the lock down (they are from a highly infectious LGA). People like this make me furious!

    My town is surrounded by the virus… so far we have escaped lock down but I don’t think we can hold out for long.

    I am frustrated at a forum I am on where almost everyone is declaring they are too scared of the vaccine and won’t get vaccinated – it’s truly worrying. I’m rather tired of being the only person going online to tell them to get a jab.

    Prof. Doherty is wonderful!

    Sorry I’m not on so much these days due to the difficulty of reading the screen… but yes, NSW is a mess and here in the regions we are furious – our base hospital has 8 ventilators – after that we would be looking at the nightmare of transferring people to other metropolitan hospitals with all that would entail. Currently I’m wishing I was in Victoria! How are you managing after the very long lock down you had earlier on?

    Oh and Sue, I heard tonight the ACT is in lock down…

    My young GP is furious because as a general practitioner she does not quality as a front line worker and has another month’s wait to get her first Pfizer jab!

    I go around telling people at least I didn’t vote this lot in….

    Hang in there everyone!


    • Oh my, that is a very worrying situation…
      I think that Lockdown is a different experience for some people. We introverts who like reading and are self-contained kind of people find it easier than people who have very active social lives or have to work from home with children underfoot. I have some experience of that because I studied part time for most of my career and always had study and work to do in school holidays, but The Offspring was a self-contained kind of person too and didn’t need to be entertained or even supervised much when he was older.
      The Spouse and I were just chatting over dinner that we’re lucky that we have already been to most of the travel destinations we wanted to visit but we’d feel it differently if we were twenty years younger and had just paid off the mortgage and were ready to set off to see the world…
      But yes, we also feel lucky to be in Victoria, we feel reassured that the management of the pandemic is in good hands. That’s a precious feeling to have and we are beginning to realise that not everyone in Australia has that good fortune.


    • I thought about you earlier this week Sue, when I heard about the case in the Bathurst gaol, but it seems like nothing has developed from it which is great. Like you, we had been feeling that we couldn’t hold out forever, and of course, as you know, we’ve had our first case in 13 months. I’m glad the Chief Minister acted immediately, on one case, as he had forecast some time ago that he would. Fingers crossed that it will be contained, but time will tell.

      I’m really sorry your eyes are causing you such problem Sue. We miss your thoughtful contributions.

      Oh, and I’m proud of my 30-something daughter who bit the bullet last week and had her first AZ shot. She was nervous about it because of all the media, but she felt it was the right thing to do.


  9. Hi Lisa and Sue,

    Thanks for your nice comments! Yes Lisa, these are good times for we introverts – I am pretty content with walking and music and listening to great talks on my tablet… Intelligence Squared in a site which has some wonderful talks, and the Oxford Union.

    I am off to Orange tomorrow Sue – it was locked down for some time and I fear this area will be locked down again before too long – and Orange is a beautiful place in the early Spring! I can imagine Canberra will be looking lovely soon. So many businesses have closed here in town since last year – the beloved Conservatorium of Music has been moved from the lovely old courthouse building in the centre of town to out in the boondocks due to some decision by a bureaucrat in the State Govt – it has taken the musical heart out of the town – I always loved seeing people coming and going carrying musical instruments, and walking through the park was a joy while listening to pianists or singing or violinists… all gone now. The arts/humanities don’t count for much in this country I fear – we joke if it had been footy they wouldn’t have moved it!

    Thanks for the kind words – one eyed vision is awkward – I collide with people in the shopping centres, and can’t judge the edges of things – I put a plate down and it crashes on the floor because I’ve missed the table – and I can’t see potholes in the ground and I misjudge the depth of stairs. It’s been quite a journey! I’m gradually getting the knack of it but it’s often frustrating and surprisingly tiring. I am finding audiobooks surprisingly good but doesn’t the narrator make a huge difference!

    I’m still reading but can’t read for the long periods I could previously. Just finished Elizabeth Farrelly’s Killing Sydney which was as depressing as I expected – definitely worth a read though.

    Good on your daughter Sue! Good to see you and Lisa and everyone are still busy with the book reviewing – I do drop by regularly to check what you’re all up to – but comments take longer as I have to concentrate hard to type!!! Excuse typos! I’m a better harp player now than typist! Cheers!


    • Sue, just a quick thought… have you got one of those ‘I am Vision Impaired’ badges that I see people wearing? Like a walking stick, it can alert people to your difficulties and trigger thoughtful and considerate behaviour.


  10. Hi Lisa, I haven’t seen those at all on anyone – I didn’t know they exist! I doubt it would help, as it’s only people on my right that i collide with as I don’t know they’re there – and they’re unlikely to see a badge on me. I don’t like the idea of wearing anything like that in any case – I prefer to look as normal as possible – wearing something like that currently would make me uncomfortable. Thank you for the suggestion though, I do appreciate it.

    And here we are in lock down – can’t get to the hairdresser, dog groomer, or music. I am so cross with the NSW State Govt!


    • I know what you mean… I felt embarrassed when out and about with a stick after my ankle surgery… but I did like the way cars slowed down to let me cross a road and people held doors open for me!
      Yes, it really is tragic what’s happened in NSW…


  11. This book is on my reading list. Thank you, Lisa.


    • He’s not afraid to call it out… yesterday he tweeted that those ‘lost’ 10 days of failure to act at the beginning are the responsibility of the NSW and Federal governments.

      415 today, and still, despite all the waffle and repetition, I don’t hear the NSW pressers point out that if those 415 share a household with one other person, that makes another 415 cases within 14 days if it’s the Delta variant. And the same is true of yesterday’s 490. And they shouldn’t leave people to do the maths themselves if it’s a household of four. A simple graphic would do it…

      They just don’t seem to understand simple messaging.

      And Dr Chant looks very unwell to me, the strain must be enormous, yet if she takes a day off, social media cranks up a storm of innuendo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, Dr Chant does look unwell. I really feel sorry for her. I am worried, too, about regional NSW (especially the Indigenous communities in the west). I am grateful that the ACT Government acted as quickly as it did. We have 9 cases: fingers crossed we can control this.


        • You should be able to… your govt has acted decisively and you have a well-educated population that understands what’s at stake. Your problem, as ours is, is keeping NSW out.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: