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‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story’ review: Looking back at the origins

In the initial days of the pandemic, as we now know it, there were several versions of a simple animated graphic doing the rounds on the internet. It sought to demonstrate a concept that was hitherto only in the stratosphere that epidemiologists inhabit, but wholly alien to the public — R-Naught (R0), which measured the transmissibility of the virus. Little infected stick figures in red would move around, and when they came into contact with another individual, that plain stick figure would light up in red, indicating the transmission had been passed on. In a sense, Michael Lewis’ The Premonition is structured quite like this animation — in the way he introduces his characters and advances the story — each character element seems to light up as his or her turn comes in the book, and is introduced with a run-up that does not necessarily indicate the significance of the character in what is to come.

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‘Wolverines’ to the rescue

The animation is suffused with an energy that increases as more and more people get infected. Lewis’ book too bristles with the same kind of energy as it progresses racily to tell the story of how the American establishment failed to summon the only people who could have made a difference in the early stages of the pandemic. It is a book about the superheroes who were never summoned, it is a no-holds-barred indictment of the way America mismanaged the crisis, and the way they looked away when all the resources were right in front of them.

A journalist and an author, Lewis summons to his aid, the minutiae and details that journalists often find themselves handling and then hooks it on to a narration that could rival the best medical thriller.

He sets out to chronicle the work of a motley band of experts calling themselves the “Wolverines”, who originally came together for the express purpose of working out a pandemic preparation plan for the nation. This team was cobbled together after former President George W. Bush was wholly influenced by John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. This story of the 1918 Spanish Flu which killed between 40 million and 60 million people around the world in about 18 months and half a million Americans, was the trigger for the then President to begin the process of pandemic planning. The team is built slowly, the book dwelling in good measure on what they did to get on the panel.

Mind you, what they do is so highly technical, you could have put this book down even before you picked it up. Lewis redeems it from that, painting these people as superheroes, their super skills explained as charmingly as in a Marvel comic, with the attendant jaw drop. Lewis argues in retrospect that these “rogue group of patriots”, led by the bandleader Carter Mecher, the ‘redneck epidemiologist’, could see the scale of the pandemic before their country could, and they were just interpreting the writing on the wall. The story is about the ‘premonition’ they had and also about the science they employed. Beginning underground, literally as emails passed amongst Wolverines, eventually parts of the strategy surfaced, and went on to influence America’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lessons from 1918

The “Nerd Bible” as it is called, written by Mecher, and Richard Hatchett, and added on painstakingly over the years, takes its lessons from the 1918 pandemic, and builds on that to arrive at the theory of Targeted Layered Containment, which is now commonly understood as a transmission chain-breaker — lockdowns. This voluminous document, which one of the ‘heroes’ Charity Dean, a public health official, carries around, is often lobbed at various powers that be, dramatically, and as an indictment of the action they could have taken to prevent deaths and morbidity due to COVID-19 but did not.

Adaptations of at least three of Lewis’ earlier books made it to the Oscar nomination list, and there’s a certain touch of screenplay in the writing, a dramatic telling. For instance, the way he constructs the scene where lowly CDC employee Lisa Koonin gets a message inviting her to the White House, is a classic example of this penchant for the dramatic. There are such scenes right through, crafted as if for effect in a movie. They work well here too. He’s a master at building tension and raising the pitch, at the same time, using sleight-of-hand to deliver relatable, engaging tales even when working with purely technical subjects. Whether it’s explaining the science behind Joe DeRisi’s rapid viral detection kit, or how Bob and Laura Glass painstakingly arrived at their transmission model, or Dean explaining the nitty gritty of tuberculosis in public health, his content remains eminently accessible.

Lewis’ nonfiction work might be a mere interpretation of what actually happened in America through the pandemic. However, his pacy tale has its share of readers who are looking through the rearview mirror, realising that the objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, and finding themselves transfixed.

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story; Michael Lewis, Penguin Random House India, ₹999.

ramya.kannan@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 8:43:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/looking-back-at-the-origins/article34849959.ece

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