I finally got this – I’ve loved reading Michael Lewis’ books since The Big Short in 2010 and then went back and read a couple priors but also continuing forward. My last book was The Fifth Risk and I felt like Lewis apparently did about Trump’s new administration; Oh-oh, when will he get tested? And then came Coronavirus-19.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story
by Michael Lewis
read by Adenrele Ojo 11h 26m
rating: 9.5 / nonfiction – medicine
(both read and listened)
I finally bought this – I’ve loved reading Michael Lewis’ books since The Big Short in 2010 and then went back and read a couple priors but also continuing forward. My last book was The Fifth Risk and I felt like Lewis apparently did about Trump’s new administration; Oh-oh, when will this get tested? And then came Coronavirus-19.
But unlike what seems to be the point in The Fifth Risk, Trump and his picks are not the only incompetents in the building. The private sector has a bunch, the academic world has theirs, and the “deep state” is not immune.
But before I get into that, I have to say that the narrator put me off with her sweet little over-emoting voice. It just doesn’t go with what I’ve listened to in Lewis’ books before and I don’t like that kind of drama unless Scott Brick does it and even his voice gets old. Lewis has always used male narrators and one time he even read his own book
But the characters, the heroes if you will, is where this book shines because Lewis gets up close and personal. First there is Laura Glass, a 14-year old 8th grader whose science fair project on social networking and disease caught the eye of her father who worked at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Then there is Charity Dean MD, the protagonist if there is one, who goes from a lowly county-level public health director to essentially being the acting director of the California Department of Public Health. She had a different, intense and hands-on approach to her job and an in-depth method of medical diagnosis. She was not scared to use the powers she had.
And there are the research doctors Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett who wanted and were able to solve problems and each of whom is treated as an individual personality over the course of several years. And there are several others including Joe DeRisi researcher and entrepreneur extraordinaire.
I don’t think Lewis lucked into such a naturally great a cast of characters as he would have you believe. There are two reasons: #1 it’s he who brings out the great stories in his characters, and #2 he’s a great story-teller, his narratives sing with literary devices and life. This is creative nonfiction at its best, or, perhaps literary nonfiction might be the better term.
And I’m so glad I read the book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John Barry (2004) back in November of 2020. It’s mentioned several times in Lewis’ book.
What did I learn from this read? In addition to learning about the chronology of events and the amazing personalities who drove their own rather insubordinate wave to get the Coronavirus under control, I learned:
FIrst, that communicable diseases are different from other diseases. The Nuvo Coronavirus doesn’t attack its victims via heredity or by way of what they ate, the Coronavirus attacks because of who the victim socialized with. Who got breathed on; who did the breathing? Also, and troubling, Covid-19 is what is known as a differential diagnoses because there are many diseases it could be so it makes accurate detection that much harder. You can’t just figure it out at home.
And second, that the CDC does research and analysis as well as implement regulations. But although it’s not supposed to simply make regulations, enforce them or determine strategy for combating disease, ever since Reagan’s time it has been political in that the director has been a presidential appointee. At that time Reagan’s base got upset about a couple things and the White House decided who was in charge at the Center. The director became a political appointee. This means the White House controls a lot of what goes on, which voices get heard, what is researched and what data is gathered. The head of the CDC is changed whenever presidents change or at their whim. With Trump, at least, it was important that data match policy, so data was changed. This last next-to-last chapter was very enlightening.
Another thing I learned is that during the early days of the pandemic there were subversives using tactics of discrete insubordination. These brave souls would either tell the truth in the face of White House rage or they’d by-pass the White House and use private, academic, or international voices. They’d use whatever they could to get the truth out there.
But just as there were insubordinates in the government there was a lot of mismanagement in the private sector, too. When it came time to provide quick and easy testing some companies were glad to help while others wanted top dollar and it still took a week to 10 days for results. Joe DeRisi simply built his own lab and got grad students from Stanford and Berkeley to assist and did it for free.
And I learned that the “We handed a whole plan for a pandemic over to the Trump administration” which was said by the Obama administration wasn’t quite the whole truth, but neither was “They handed us nothing.” There was some stuff there, but it wasn’t exactly up to date or in a usable form. Jon Barry’s book on the influenza of 1918 was at times, perhaps and in ways, a better guide on strategies.
Personally, about the style, I found the use of the “f-bomb” a bit much but then I considered the circumstances and had to admit I’d have likely been using it too – especially if I were in the shoes of some of these people and 20 years younger.