18 May 2021

An all too parochial pandemic story


Michael Lewis’s protagonists see things that other people miss. In The Big Short, it was the small group of investors who anticipated the financial crisis. In Moneyball, it was a coach at the Oakland Athletics who harnessed the power of statistics to upend the conventional wisdom of baseball scouting. In The Undoing Project, it was Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work more or less created behavioural economics.

Lewis’s latest book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, is in the same mould. This time, the heroes are a group of American public health bureaucrats and epidemiologists, and, as the book’s title suggests, Lewis affords them almost supernatural foresight when it comes to spotting the gravity of Covid-19. For Lewis, their story – and the fact that they weren’t listened to in the way they should have been – is an answer to a question: Why did America underperform expectations so badly when it came to its handling of the pandemic?

In the introduction to The Premonition, Lewis tells readers “this particular story is about the curious talents of a society, and how those talents are wasted if not led. It’s also about how gaps open up between a society’s reputation and its performance”. He manages to side-step the shallowest explanation of America’s lacklustre pandemic response, which pins all the blame on Donald Trump. “As I got into it and found these wonderful characters to tell the story through,” he writes, “it became clear that Trump’s approach to government management was only a part of the story, and maybe not even the bigger part.”

Through his characters, Lewis tells a story of the failure in the country’s health bureaucracy in general and the Centres for Disease Control in particular. His cast are the outsiders who should have been listened to earlier. Charity Dean is a no-nonsense disruptor working as a Californian health official; Joe Derisi invented a chip that can identify any virus; Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett wrote a pandemic response plan for the George W. Bush administration; Bob Glass builds a statistical model for pandemics inspired by his daughter’s science fair project. As the plague rears its head, these characters start waving their hands furiously – then pulling their hair out at the inadequacy of the policy response.

Hospitals refuse free Covid tests because their databases cannot compute “$0”. California administrators are still using fax machines. In one foretelling of the inertia to come, the CDC is reluctant to act decisively to stop a potentially lethal meningitis outbreak on a college campus because responding with more than one measure at a time would mean it would not know which intervention had worked. “They wanted to learn from this outbreak and I wanted to stop it,” says Dean.

Risk aversion and buck-passing are rife. “Sins of commission got you fired. Sins of omission you could get away with, but they left people dead,” writes Lewis of the public health officer’s dilemma.

And yet, for all its telling details about how the many layers of American government were ill-equipped for a public health crisis on the scale of Covid-19, The Premonition misses the mark. At his best, Lewis is among the finest non-fiction storytellers working today. His characters buck conventional wisdom and change the world. Their journeys tell bigger stories. Massive questions are answered with show-don’t-tell clarity. But in The Premonition, it feels as though all the important stuff is happening off-stage. Lewis only claims to be telling “a pandemic story”, but it is one that is just less interesting or enlightening than he seems to think.

He also tries too hard to squeeze events into his tried and tested framework of plucky disruptors versus conventional wisdom. After all, the epidemiological conventional wisdom agreed with the calculations of his renegades. On one occasion, Lewis describes the pandemic model designed by Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson as an “academically respectable version” of the models used by his characters. That’s an exciting way of saying that the arguments and insights advanced by those Lewis focuses on just aren’t that revolutionary. Lewis’s “rogue group of patriots” just weren’t that rogue. Similarly, the lag between the spread of a virus and it showing up in the data – a crucial pandemic dynamic that he keeps returning to as though it is an exciting new idea – is something that all of us are painfully familiar with after more than a year of living through a pandemic.

Far from resolving the question he sets himself, I suspect Lewis will leave readers scratching their heads. Important parts of Lewis’s story have libertarian implications he appears reluctant to accept. And a clear trend throughout the pandemic – from the testing hold ups in the early response that Lewis focuses on to the more recent vaccine roll out — is a systemic failure to appreciate the importance of speed. Public bodies have tended to delay, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and generally chosen costly inaction over riskier, potentially life-saving action.

Elsewhere, however, Lewis genuflects towards technocratic know-how in a way that is hard to square with the unflattering portrait he paints of the CDC. The key to a better pandemic response and better government in general, he seems to be saying, is about listening to “smart” men and women. But how do we pluck the countercultural geniuses out from the crowd of risk-averse conformists?

Early on in the pandemic, those most sceptical of the kind of civil service expertise Lewis reveres had a grasp on the seriousness of the situation. Trumpworld’s anti-globalist hardliners, such as the president’s former right-hand-man Steve Bannon and White House adviser Peter Navarro, were very worried about Covid-19 while technocratic moderates dismissed mask-wearing as a panicked and unscientific response, cautioned that the main threat from the pandemic was a rise in anti-Asian prejudice and insisted that travel bans were xenophobic. That dynamic is at odds with Lewis’s story.

The Premonition ultimately feels parochial. Compared with similar Western democracies, America’s pandemic response is unremarkable in terms of lives lost. And so a story that focuses on Covid-19 as a peculiarly American failing can only teach you so much. The implication of Lewis’s book is that if America had heeded the advice of the right set of experts, last year would have gone very differently, and tens of thousands of “missing Americans” would still be saved. But given the parallels between America and Western Europe, Lewis’s argument is just too cute.

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Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.