Michael Lewis’s new book, The Premonition, is a superhero story — though one in which the superheroes don’t, in the end, win. It’s the true story of a group of far-sighted, tough-minded scientists who, in January last year, saw the coronavirus pandemic coming in the USA, and the politicians who wouldn’t listen to them.
And at the heart of the book is the terrible discovery, as true here as it is in the States: we imagine that, come disaster, the people we elect will look after us. We’re told they’re well prepared. But when it comes down to it, they protect not us but themselves.
The villain of Lewis’s book is the United States Centers for Disease Control, which equivocated until it was far too late and ignored the pandemic plan it had. Here in the UK, Public Health England simply didn’t have a plan. My husband, who was working for Boris Johnson at the time, came home incredulous one day in late February 2020: ‘I’ve seen the plan, and I’m afraid it’s not a plan at all. It’s just a plan to have a plan at some stage.’
The Premonition is a book about mass death and institutional cowardice and its heroes end up sidelined. So one of the strangest things about it is that it’s a blast to read. It’s excoriating but it’s also joyful — and it wasn’t until I was face to face with Michael Lewis that I understood why.
‘I hate to say it but I had the most fun pandemic,’ Lewis grins. He’s 60 but boyish, in the best sense of the word. It’s hard to have a satisfactory peer about when you’re speaking to someone on Zoom, but on the screen Lewis looks happy and his hair bounces excitedly as he talks. ‘I had so much fun writing this book.