When Covid-19 hit, Dr Michael Greger was in the middle of a publicity tour for his book How Not to Diet. Like many others, he had to pause his plans. Unlike many others, he was already well versed in pandemic preparedness and took the chance to take a deep dive into pandemics; the result of which is his fourth book How to Survive a Pandemic.


I’ve come to expect two things when I pick up a book by Dr Michael Greger: it’s title will inevitably begin with the word HOW and it will be a monster of a book with an encyclopaedic amount of information crammed between it’s covers. Reading them must be done is small increments to allow you to absorb the information without becoming overwhelmed, I prefer to read his books in the morning with a cup of coffee when my mind is sharpest, which is how I read How to Survive a Pandemic over the course of a few months. While, I may add, I was actually busy surviving a pandemic.


How to Survive a Pandemic delves into the history of viruses and pandemics, identifying the root cause and offering a wealth of information on both a global, national, and personal level. Throughout the book he tackles the question: How can we stop the emergence of pandemic viruses in the first place? Because despite what we may feel, Covid 19 isn’t the worst a pandemic can get and it’s not the pandemic that the experts have been predicting.


According to the Smithsonian there have been three great epidemiological transitions in human history. The first era of human disease began with the acquisition of disease from domesticated animals, such as measles and smallpox. The second era came with the Industrial Era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, resulting in an epidemic of the so-called diseases of civilisation or lifestyle diseases as we refer to them, including cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes as well as chronic diseases. We have now entered the third stage of human disease, which started around forty years ago – the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Medical historians describe these last decades as the age of ‘the emerging plagues”. The culprit is environmental change brought on and/or exacerbated by humans. Climate change, deforestation, industrialization, and intensification of the animal production sector. The animal production sector is a primary subject of the book; and he largely places blame on them – the overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and push to produce more at lower costs has created an environment ripe for infection. Globalization now means that a virus is no longer contained, it travels from one country to the next before it can be stopped.


Not all viruses have and will cause a pandemic, he describes the three characteristics of microbes most likely to cause pandemics and catastrophes as:

  1. Novelty, so there is no pre-existing immunity.
  2. Respiratory spread, respiratory tract infections are humanity’s fourth leading killer even outside of pandemics.
  3. Transmission before symptom onset. A disease that can be spread before you know you have it is hard to stop, and to slow the spread you have to try isolate everyone.


How to Survive a Pandemic is an educational and eye-opening book. It’s impossible to walk away from his books without feeling like you have gained a new understanding of a topic. More than that, you will have taken something from it – some tip or lesson you can insert into your life. From lists of essential items to always have on hand, to recipes for purifying your own water and making your own hand sanitizer.


A quote he shared from Aldous Huxley, has stuck in my head and sums up a common thread in much of the history he goes through, from events that occurred during the 1918 pandemic (100 years ago people were also fighting over wearing masks) to a complete lack of pandemic plans despite warnings for years.


That men don’t learn much from the lessons of history, is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach


Much like I did in my review of How Not to Diet, I’m sharing a few things I bookmarked. They’re but a drop in the ocean of knowledge crammed into the 343 pages that make up the book, so if you find them interesting know that there’s much from where they came from.


On Caronavirus and Caronaviruses

Caronaviruses are named for their crown-like appearance under a microscope – from the Latin carona for ‘crown’, as in coronation – due to a fringe of protein spikes that radiate from the surface. Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019, is the third deadly human coronavirus to emerge since the turn of the century.


On Zoonotic diseases

Most animals probably have 30 to 40 major diseases and the WHO expects more animal viruses to jump to humans making the possibility for exposure enormous. According to a professor of tropical medicine ‘for every virus that we know about, there are hundreds we don’t know anything about, most of which we don’t even know exist

Dr Gregor explains that the transmission of disease from animal to person is not new. Most human infectious diseases that exist today originally came from animals and can be traced back to the domestication of animals. He goes on further to say that epidemic diseases tend to be harboured by animal species that herd or flock together in large numbers. This allows pathogens to spread fast throughout entire populations. That herd instinct is what makes these animals desirable for domestication.


On foods to boost your immunity

Dr Gregor writes that he has avoided jumping on the ‘snake-oily spamwagon’ of foods to eat to boost your immune system given our ignorance of the immunological aspects of Covid-19. He goes further to say that enhancing specific arms of the immune system could hypothetically make things worse. Before trying to boost your immune system, given the uncertainties, Dr Gregor states that the best strategy is to not get infected in the fist place.


On washing your hands

In the beginning of lockdown, everyone was sharing meme’s and the best 20 second songs to sing while washing your hands. He says that the recommendation of 20 seconds was for no other reason than to encourage proper hand coverage. The most missed areas are thumbs, fingertips and backs of hands. There is no need to use hot water, cold water is jus as effective and is better in that it doesn’t dry out your hands as much.


Hand sanitiser is recommended if your hands are not soiled as it results in better surface area coverage – people rub sanitiser on more effectively than washing their hands.


According to the former influenza program officer of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, without a vaccine, the ‘single” most important step people can take to prevent getting the flu is to wash their hands properly.


On masks

They are meant to protect others from you, rather than you from others. Common cold coronaviruses can be detected in exhaled breath, not just coughing, and sneezing and surgical masks cut down the amount of virus you exhale out into the world.

The most efficient homemade masks at blocking bacteria and viruses are from scarves, pillowcases and 100% cotton tshirts.

Sneezes can exceed one hundred miles per hour and hurl germs as far away as forty feet. That’s why it’s so important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze during regular times and not only stay 6 feet apart but wear a mask during a pandemic.


On Looking after yourself once you are sick

Stay in bed and rest – fatigue, weakness and muscle aches is your body’s way of telling you to stay in bed. Not only will you be less likely to spread the disease to others, but bed rest lets your body proportion more energy to mobilise initial defence.

Stay properly hydrated -sip one cup of tea, water, juice or soup every waking hour. This loosens pulmonary secretions to help rid the body of the virus and prevent dehydration that accompanies fever. He gives a recipe for a rehydration solution – 1 litre of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon baking soda. Adding ½ cup orange juice, coconut water or a mashed ripe banana would add in potassium.

Try to avoid breaking a fever – a fever is the body’s way of fighting infection and he cautions against using drugs like Tylenol or Advil to break it. Rather use a cold cloth on your forehead which helps without lowering your internal virus-fighting fever. He says that the time to consider drugs is if the fever interferes with sleep, which is crucial for recovery and with fevers above 104°F/40°C.

Lastly, be wary of questionable remedies touted over the internet. None has been shown to trump bed rest and fluids to improve survival.


I find Dr Greger to be an extremist in his views – it’s something that comes out in every book I’ve read of his. I tend to fall more in the middle; but nonetheless I still enjoy reading his books and learning about topics I’m not well versed in. I don’t believe you have to take everything someone says or suggest as written in stone and apply it to your life, but I do think you can be open to learning and choosing what to apply to your life, or what opinions make sense to you. This is how I approach his books, it’s always fascinating to learn; but doesn’t mean I’m about to stock up on a dozen cheap bottles of vodka in case I need to make my own sanitizer. I will, however, use his tips on looking after oneself if you are sick.


If you want to learn about pandemics and viruses and arm yourself with some preparedness and understanding of what the world is going through now, this book is a good start.


How to survive a pandemic was given to us by Pan Macmillan Publishers and is available here. Pan Macmillan Publishers nor the author approved or reviewed this piece prior to publication. Opinions + images are our own. 



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