Book Review: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story
by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis does narrative nonfiction extremely well, and The Premonition is one of his best. This book tells the story of a group of people (called the Wolverines), all experts and insiders, who try to have a positive impact on America's response to the COVID pandemic, with very limited success. The book's focus is not on blaming Trump or his administration or any specific individual, but on painting the picture of why our institutions set up to serve and protect us against pandemics failed. It's a larger story than you might expect and Lewis tells it very well. The book reads like a thriller and had me hooked from the start.

All of the folks in the Wolverines are involved in one way or another in public health or in pandemic planning across the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. Two of them actually helped author the federal government's plan for pandemic response. When COVID hit, they banded together to try to influence the response. But they are up against a decentralized, disconnected public health system with perverse incentives, bureaucratic CYA at the CDC, political calculation, and lack of leadership at many levels. Their plan and their advice are only partially listened to at first. And so the virus spread and many more lives were lost than if the actions they championed had been quickly taken up.

This is not the story of the pandemic I was expecting. It left me feeling like we in America are much further behind the eight ball in terms of pandemic response than has already been made readily apparent over the last year. It's a depressing counterpoint to Lewis's previous book The Fifth Risk. In that book he highlighted the amazing expertise and accomplishments of our various federal agencies and cautioned against taking them for granted. In this book he highlights that, while pandemic expertise may reside in our government agencies, when it comes to actually taking action the system itself is completely broken. And he gives you many of the reasons why. All in a tightly written fast moving narrative.

I give The Premonition Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐. It's a gripping read.

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