A Complex Reaction to Michael Lewis’ New Book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story | Inside Higher Ed

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Published in May of 2021.

Books are never one thing. A book can be simultaneously informative and misleading. Entertaining yet frustrating. Wise, but also overly simplistic.

Michael Lewis’ new, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, is all of these things and more.

Perhaps my problem with The Premonition lies less with the book and more with me. Lewis tells the story of why and how the US so severely botched our national response to COVID-19 as history. A tale to be reconstructed from its origins, with plenty of lessons to go around.

From where I sit as someone working in higher education, the story of our response to the pandemic feels nowhere close to history. We are still in the middle of things. Or, if not the middle, an unclear and indeterminate midpoint.

Do you have any idea what the fall will look like on our campuses? Sure, I have ideas. Some suspicions. But mostly questions.

When will we return to crowded lecture halls? Packed libraries? Sporting events with stands full of spectators? I have no idea.

While almost all of us will be resuming “normal” residential operations in September, I don’t think I understand what “normal” means anymore.

How many students will not be able to return to campus due to health concerns and visa challenges? Will we all try to run HyFlex classrooms, realizing too late the extreme difficulty of creating equitable learning experiences for all students?

None of these questions has anything to do with The Premonition.

On its own, The Premonition is a typical Michael Lewis book. A story of outsiders and misfits who saw something earlier and clearer than the people in charge, and then fought valiantly against “the system” to change business as usual.

Lewis’ reconstruction of the causes of our dysfunctional public health system – dysfunction only fully revealed as the pandemic swept through the nation throughout 2020 – is indeed riveting.

Nonfiction books that sell well are built around stories and characters, not data and theories. The Premonition tells the story of our failure to contain COVID-19 through a cast of wildly compelling characters. These characters include a fearless California public health officer, a couple of idiosyncratic White House advisors, and a brilliant academic scientist whose lab revolutionized the identification of viral pathogens.

There is little in The Premonition about the official federal pandemic response. Perhaps this is because the official response was so anemic and ineffective. Anthony Fauci gets only a few mentions in the book. Deborah Birx is entirely absent. The White House COVID Taskforce is seldom mentioned.

The organization and the people who come off the worse in The Premonition are not the White House and Trump (who someone describes in the book as “comorbidity” of COVID), but the CDC and its leaders.

The Centers for Disease Control comes off really badly in The Premonition. While reading the book, I kept thinking that the story must be more nuanced and complicated than Lewis portrays.

Sure, the CDC minimized the risk of COVID-19 in the early months. And there is little doubt that the leadership of the CDC was inadequately brave in standing up to the dangerous nonsense coming out of the White House.

But I’m also one hundred percent positive that there were examples of courage, intelligence, and even effective action within the CDC.

Big organizations like the CDC are complex places. They are made up of people who likely disagree as much as they agree. Lewis maybe did not look for protagonists within the CDC who fought for a different sort of pandemic response. If he had, The Premonition would have been perhaps less entertaining, as the story of plucky outsiders facing an enormous faceless bureaucracy would have been less straightforward.

Complexity is less entertaining than straightforward heroism. But we live in a complex world.

In reading The Premonition, I kept wondering how Lewis might tell the story of higher ed’s response to COVID? What is the simple description, and what is the complex narrative? What did we get totally wrong? And what did we get right?

Most of all, I wonder what we have all learned from the pandemic about what we do in these organizations that we call colleges and universities? What might we have done differently before the pandemic hit if we suspected it would come? And what will we do differently once almost everyone is vaccinated?

The Premonition is hugely fun to read. I highly recommend the audiobook version. I’m sure the book will make a terrific movie. Jennifer Lawrence should play Charity Dean, the brave and outspoken California public health officer. And George Clooney will play Carter Mecher, the idiosyncratic White House Advisor. Maybe Woody Harrelson as Joe DeRisi, the brilliant academic. Can’t wait.

For higher ed, we need a more nuanced and complex recounting of the impact of the pandemic.

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