Review: The Premonition
There’s been a lots of finger-pointing about the US’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be tough for a layperson to sift through all the different takes on which experts let us down and how they failed. Everything I’ve read from Michael Lewis (one book on early Internet adoption, another about professional sports team management, and the third on Wall Street tomfoolery) is mostly lower-stakes than that. While their subjects aren’t matters of life-and-death, the books all demonstrate a clean style and an aptitude for critical thinking. These are qualities that I think we’d all appreciate in any discussion of the notoriously confusing subject. That’s why when I learned that Lewis had already published a book on the systemic failures in the US’s pandemic response, it went to the top of my reading list.
Lewis’s writing style is strong in all the ways I’ve come to expect: informal, clear, and frank. Most of all, though, it’s simple. He does the most work explaining complex ideas, and he otherwise gets out of the way of his subjects.
Speaking of the subjects: The Premonition is an mesmerizing gallery of incredible people. It has a couple unofficial protagonists (namely Carter Mecher and Charity Dean), but as you might expect from a story at this scale, the focus shifts to a bunch of people. Lewis sometimes makes surprising leaps, but he always finds his way back to the team of people who are “sort of” in charge of the pandemic response.
What Charity couldn’t figure out was how, or even if, what she said on the calls found its way into the ears of the decision makers–and who those people were. At one point she put the question to James Lawler: “James,” she asked, “who exactly is in change of this pandemic?” “Nobody,” he replied. “But if you want to know who is sort of in change, it’s sort of us.”
Maybe most impressive is how much leaping isn’t involved, or put differently, how little Lewis needs to travel to find stories that are both relevant and fascinating. My favorite: the motivation and logistics behind injecting a python with an ancestor of Ebola. It’s tempting to assume that Lewis simply struck gold with the people he decided to cover. Even as a non-journalist, though, I know it only looks obvious thanks to tons of research, organization, and editing.
(Speaking of craft, it’s impressive that anyone was able to compile an account like this so quickly. In the long run, books about the COVID-19 pandemic will be judged by their content rather than their publication date, and I’m trying to do that here… But you’ve still gotta hand it to Lewis for speed.)
As compelling as the people are, their stories are not the only thing holding The Premonition together. Lewis relates most every victory and failure back back to one of a few themes. He makes extended metaphors of the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 1949 Mann Gulch wildfire (both fascinating in their own right). He regularly calls out the failures of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His criticism intensifies as the events unfold and ultimately becomes downright withering: “a weird simulation of criss response that did not involve actually trying to stop the virus.” It’s enough to make you question the agency’s wisdom in contradicting the WHO’s advice on booster vaccine doses.1
Although it might surprise anyone who lived through the past two years, it’s not all doom and gloom! The strongest themes focus on the fundamental challenges in pandemic response. That includes the difficulty of extrapolation and the necessity of data. Lewis frequently highlights the unrealized potential of grass-roots organizations and decentralized decision making.
Perhaps surprisingly, the former US president was not a theme. If anything, Lewis seems dismissive of Donald Trump. He has no kind words for the man, but he avoids the indignation that many reporters sustained for years. Lewis resists the now-common tendency to center the former president in every contentious issue; in some cases, he instead uses “the system” as a euphemism. It’s unclear if Lewis is intentionally snubbing 45 or if this just reflects an underlying position that the president was absent from his duties. It’s refreshing, either way. Lewis enjoys an advantage that analysis has over direct reporting: he doesn’t have to combat the normalization of atrocious behavior (and risk feeding the demagogue’s strategy in the process). Though honestly, as long as vaccination rates in the Global South remain so abysmally low 2, I hope mainstream media can maintain that urgency, however exhausting.
Lewis never loses sight of the tragedy of the pandemic, but he focuses on the systemic challenges and the people trying to overcome them. This puts The Premonition right up there with my favorite writing on current events: clear-eyed, imaginative, and hopeful.
As of Februrary 2022, the CDC writes “After [5 months following a two-shot series or two months following the J&J/Janssen vaccine], a booster shot is recommended,” while the WHO “is not recommending booster doses at this time.”[return]
It’s 10% in Africa, for example, and some countries haven’t even breeched 1%.[return]