The Premonition by Michael Lewis
The Premonition is the latest offering from New York Times bestselling author Michael Lewis of The Big Short and Boomerang fame. In this, like many of his books, he walks the line of savvy journalistic writing and narrative structure.
The COVID-19 pandemic caught a significant percentage of the world’s population by surprise. However, working behind the scenes in laboratories that were drastically underfunded or unrecognised by those in power, a group of scientists worked tirelessly to let the world know what was coming and just how drastic things had become. In the book they are collectively and lovingly referred to as the Wolverines.
Lewis introduces the reader to a host of previously unknown scientists who cumulatively create some remarkable feats in the face of intense adversity from the population and a torturous President Trump who refuses to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic.
Earlier in the year, Lewis interviewed with The New York Times to discuss the book and referred to it as a ‘superhero’ story. There is no real superhero in this story, just a group of people who know a lot about the science of influenza. That sounds a little condescending to the title but the book doesn’t have the same zest that his previous endeavours so wonderfully achieved. Perhaps the fact that much of America is still very much in the midst of the vaccine roll out and still not out of the proverbial woods.
The book feels premature. With the virus still infecting hundreds of thousands around the world everyday and, while slowing, showing little sign of lifting its grip on the globe it just has a ‘why now’ feel about it.
As per his other works the writing is definitely strong and holds the reader’s attention throughout. It is surprising how much went on behind the scenes, and indeed how long it takes for Lewis to actually get to the point of discussing the 2020 episode. Much of the book is spent providing background information on previous epidemics like 1918, H1N1 and other strains of influenza throughout history.
Highlighted throughout the text is the poor response of the government of US throughout the entire build up and crux of the pandemic. It outlines the many opportunities that both the agencies and the White House had to slow down or even halt the spread, but those opportunities were not taken. History will definitely look at this period with a fairly critical eye to the leadership. In the headlights of this criticism should be the CDC - the Center for Disease Control - and they perform the antagonist role in the book in most instances of viruses both now and historically. Certainly some of the decision making leaves the reader open mouth shocked with the incompetence and general lack of comprehension in the face of pretty obvious evidence.
It will be interesting to see whether the book will be revised multiple times before the end of the pandemic. It feels like we still have some way to go.
Reviewer: Chris Reed