Living through a seemingly never-ending public health crisis is distressing. As I write this, the Delta variant of Covid-19 runs rampant through the US alongside its main enabler, vaccine misinformation. What a time to be alive!
As I recently posted to my Instagram Story: Do you have a stack of emotional support books about pandemics or are you normal? While I’m not alone in emotional support book stacks, I’m fairly abnormal in piling on the titles about pandemics and disease. As we meander through this interminable pandemic, I turn back to this “genre” as I did in the spring and summer of 2020. When the present is a nightmare, looking to the past helps me make sense of the world and put it in its proper context. Most of these books in my emotional support stack were written before 2020, about specific plagues like the 1918 flu or about how to prevent pandemics in the future (LOL). Yet, books about our current situation also proliferate!
I prefer the older histories, because reading about our current times bring up such fresh rage. Still, I read and just finished one such title, “The Premonition: A Pandemic Story” by Michael Lewis. For the title of this post, I crib from that subtitle; I want to emphasize the “A” of it all. A Story. That’s important, because if you’re looking for a sweeping history, this isn’t it. It’s A Story. It’s not THE story of the pandemic, but rather one slice of it. It’s a little bit about the United States pandemic preparedness plan (and lack thereof), and a lot about a few people who tried their best to respond quickly to Covid-19. It’s about the failure of the leaders across the United States to keep its people safe, leaving us to fend for ourselves against a new and destructive disease.
Lewis weaves together the stories of people who, through the years, have worked to make the US pandemic and public health response better. You’ve got a high school science project, a bold public health leader, an innovative scientist, and a hospital administrator with a lot of e-mails tying these people together. These are people who saw small details and placed them in a bigger context to fix problems. They saw the writing on the wall as news emerged from China about a new disease; they tried to respond to put a stop to this Covid-19 pandemic in the United States; they were thwarted at every turn by the inept way this country approaches crisis.
Be prepared to be angry and upset at what could have been. At learning that there was a lab ready to sequence this virus and get ahead of variants (LOL) in late April 2020, but bureaucracy got in the way. That even in March and April 2020, brave people without enough power had plans to try to contain this disease and those with power seem to have ignored them.
To put it mildly: the CDC does not come off well. As I remain irritated with their inability to put together coherent public health messaging here in 2021, I’m not exactly thrilled with the picture painted here about their pandemic response and lack thereof. From both this book and from what I have observed throughout this pandemic, is seemingly a lack of bravery and boldness, an unwillingness to do what is right even when it’s hard. And that sentiment applies to more than the CDC. This book makes a case for what precipitated this state of affairs for the CDC, going back to the 1976 Swine Flu Pandemic (that ended up not quite as bad as expected, which, is part of the problem). But really, what has happened to us over and over in this pandemic is symptomatic of the American problem of being too big for our britches and believing we are invincible.
I have a few quibbles with this book. There are no citations or index. Due to this lack, I think some specious asides are included that deserve further scrutiny. First are allusions to racial quotas for job positions that are not fully explored or cited in the text; rather they are mentioned as almost casual notes when the only source (as far as the reader can tell) is the aggrieved party. Second is a story about a TB positive patient in Santa Barbara who comes from a migrant community originating from the Mixtecs of Oaxaca. I happen to know more than your typical American reader about Oaxacan Mixtecs (I wrote about my admittedly limited experience back in 2013) and some of the statements made about this group in the text are suspect. When I see unsubstantiated comments about topics with which I’m familiar, I start to wonder what else in the book needs more attention and citation.
Despite those quibbles, I enjoyed this book and I encourage you to read it to learn about this slice of what could have been. The Premonition is a page turner, not a dense read, and comes in at about 300 pages. This is just “A” part of the story of this Covid-19 pandemic, and more will be written and argued about as we move forward. But it’s an important part of the story because it pushes us to ask a lot of questions and seek answers about how we respond to crisis in this country.
To quote the book, a question of the public health protagonist of the story, on page 279: “Why doesn’t the United States have the institutions it needs to save itself?”