This is not a book. It is a screenplay. Michael Lewis wrote The Big Short in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short, the movie starring Brad Pitt, was a box office hit in 2015. Success was unexpected. It started out on limited release before Paramount realised they had an Academy Award blockbuster on their hands.
Who would have thunk it? Wall Street nerds short-selling collateralised debt structures in the housing market is not likely Hollywood hot box office. B-o-r-i-n-g. The genius of Lewis and director Adam MacKay turned a techno-geek narrative snooze into a bio-pic whodunnit romp.
Lewis’ credentials as a rom-com crisis narrator are beyond reproach. The Premonition is The Big Short of the current covid pandemic. This is not – how can I put it kindly? – sober analysis. It is a Marvel comic treatment of the current global pandemic crisis.
But it is unputdownable; I read its 300 pages in a day. Underpinning the sometimes breathless hoo-ha is a ruthless exposition of the failures of US institutions to identify the looming Covid-19 crisis, then deal with it when the infection tsunami hit. The system, in its myriad forms, was in denial.
As per Marvel epics there is a superheroine, Laura Glass, a public health official in California. Her name opens the book. A middle school kid with a science dad, working on a project about the algorithmic spread of The Black Death. Creepy. Not sure if she got many invites to the School Prom. She becomes fascinated by the spread of disease through social contact and opts for a career in public health.
Glass is eventually mentored by Dr Charity Dean, the public health officer for Santa Barbara County. Turns out that public health officers in California have superpowers. They can investigate anything, demand closures, command morticians to hand over suspected infected corpses.
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In the search for a villain killer tuberculosis strain Dean commandeers a corpse, cleaves its ribs with garden shears acquired from a handy Home Depot on a makeshift gurney in a parking lot, then heads off triumphantly to the lab with the lungs in a bucket. A severe strain of TB is identified.
Unnecessarily gruesome? Perhaps. But the point is that throughout the subsequent Covid pandemic the stasis of bureaucracies in denial will have to be overcome by outrageous intervention. Garden shears trump red tape.
It was a bit of a surprise to learn that back in 2005 the mould-breaking thinker on pandemic policy was President George W Bush. Apparently, he had read a book. Not, according to mocking elitist influencers of the era, his strong suit. The book was John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Mr President convened a White House meeting to discuss the implications.
On the fringes was another unlikely hero, Rajeev Venkayya, who had written the US’s plan to fight a pandemic, “in the basement of his parents’ house in Xenia, Ohio”. Surprised? Don’t be stupid. Clark Kent regularly changed into Superman in a telephone box. Actually, Venkayya was a doctor and had secured a White House Fellowship. So, his presence was not as serendipitous as the wily author would have us believe.
Lewis then performs a sort of Dance of the Seven Pandemic Thinkers, a tantalising reveal of the central characters who would tackle the unfolding Covid crisis. The characters form an anarchistic group, The Wolverines, so dubbed because throughout the narrative they circle stupid, siloed, dullards in the Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and county health departments, chew them up, then spit them out. They communicate with each other via shared use of an exciting ‘Red Phone’. I thought the Cold War was over.
Analysis of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans and was focused on an outbreak in Philadelphia among concentrated numbers of returning WWI servicemen, proves to be the harbinger of 2019 Covid doom. Lewis again deploys his alchemic trick of transmuting the ditch-water-dull – Public Health interventions and epidemic Intensity during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic – into the immediately accessible – Redneck epidemiology – to great effect. He could transform a filing cabinet of social security data into a romping thriller.
The book moves on to narrate the stuttering evolution of a pandemic strategy in the chapter ‘Stopping the Unstoppable’. That sells the pass about how this is all going to turn out. Not well. Laura Glass, now all of 16, has the solution: “If adults also restrict their contacts within non-essential work environments epidemics from such highly infective strains can be ENTIRELY THWARTED”. This book comes down firmly on the “close it down early” side of the fence.
Laura’s science project won no prizes in California but seems to have been picked up in the UK by SAGE, now relying on it to justify constant reimposition of lockdowns at every variant twist and turn.
Spookily, Imperial College’s epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson – yes, he of clapped-out software modelling claims – has an early walk-on part, consorting with the Wolverines. Maybe he picked up Laura’s project on his trip and ran with it back in the UK. He haunts the book twice.
Readers now dive down a number of chaotic rabbit holes justifying the emerging thesis that instinct in an unfamiliar crisis often beats data. A side-tracking chapter is devoted to the Mann Gulch fire analogy. Mann Gulch was a catastrophic Missouri River bushfire in 1949 which killed 13 smoke-jumpers. Firefighters who were helicoptered into the heart of a wildfire, ignoring warnings from an omnipresent far seeing outsider that the fire was going to behave unpredictably, were trapped and burned to death.
Fitting for Covid-19 – if the “expect the unexpected” Wolverine prophets remain unheeded. The analogy is a bit of a stretch, but the useful point is hammered home; blinkered thinking blockheads were never going to tackle this pandemic successfully.
The dysfunctionality of the Trump administration is recounted without the usual rancour that characterises his usual-suspect knee-jerk critics. The harsh truth is that the onset of Covid-19, with its unusually virulent transmissibility, caught all agencies on the hop. If any policy lesson is to be gleaned from the chaos it is that more fluent structures, formed by those closest to the action and prepared to accept politically incorrect truths (such as the fact that poor homeless people are likely to suffer most) can better shape intervention policy, as novel characteristics of a pandemic emerge.
What are this book’s weaknesses? It lacks an index. The structure is a bit of a hugger-mugger. Too many filmic cuts from one scene to another in an effort to inject pace. From school project to tuberculosis outbreak, Wolverines on a Red Phone, back to flu 1918. Then, on to the final chapter based on a ridiculous analogy; one of the heroines – Dr Charity Dean – populates her balcony with plastic flowers after a bitter divorce because she can no longer be bothered tending the real ones. She is sussed by a sniffing neighbour.
It is a convoluted metaphor for the CDC preferring window dressing over substance. But, a whole concluding chapter, ‘Plastic Flowers’, really? That and a tendency for ‘Zap!’, ‘Kapowee’ interjections, ‘Shit! They should be scared’, faux-dialogue plus an occasional habit of USING CAPITALS TO ACHIEVE DRAMATIC EFFECT, debase the coinage of an otherwise serious commentary.
That is a quibble. The Premonition is a timely achievement. It places the US reaction to Covid-19 in the historical context of pandemic fighting policies developed over years. It takes readers on a sweeping journey beyond the US, from Wuhan through other global hotspots then, back home. It is amazingly up to date, recounting events as recent as February 2021 – a tribute to present day publishing technology.
The book’s addictiveness derives from Lewis’ painstaking legwork seeking out and interviewing all of the characters who appear in this haphazard tale. The style is newsy and involving. It is largely the point that the tale is haphazard. No one can satisfactorily plan for pandemics. We might be invited to coo at the Marvel heroes but thankfully there is no irritating, omniscient ‘I told you so’ busybody lecturing in the background.
I think Boris Johnson should dump his inevitably neverendum public inquiry and call Michael Lewis. For no reason other than that the inquiry’s grandees will still be fumbling to find a conclusion in the long grass beyond the next general election, while the next pandemic is upon us.
The Premonition may not be an authoritative, peer reviewed, academic treatise, but it is a readable, well-informed handy reference to what happened, what went wrong, what went right and how we can do better next time. Its conclusions are substantive. Its lessons are for today.
Even as I pen this review, I am being told on the news that amber countries will welcome Brits, but the government thinks we shouldn’t go there. We are vaccine stuffed and Covid tested to the hilt. Smell the plastic flowers. Boris needs to read this book. Fast.