His COVID book says we didn’t social distance hard enough
The Premonition, the new book by Michael Lewis about the COVID-19 pandemic, is a strange piece of work. Lewis specializes in spotting a societal trend that’s bubbling below the surface, the kind that only the smartest people can see. In Moneyball it was Billy Beane’s fresh sabermetrics approach to budget baseball roster construction. The heroes of The Big Short saw the crash of 2008 coming and profited from it handsomely. The Blind Side, white savior narrative aside, was about a different philosophical approach to playing American football. So, you’d think, maybe Lewis sees something about the pandemic that the rest of us don’t. Yet The Premonition feels like a Twitter feed from June 2020, while the rest of the country has moved along.
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For decades, smart people have taken whatever Lewis reports as not just received wisdom, but as actual wisdom. People have often compared Lewis’s book work to Malcolm Gladwell’s, but he’s much less controversial, and not as annoying a public figure. Gladwell has recently pivoted into “what if we’d killed baby Hitler?” territory, whereas Lewis remains untouchable. The Fifth Risk, his previous book before The Premonition, pointed out that the Trump Administration had basically dismantled the regulatory state, replacing qualified people with political appointees. This was a dangerous trend, he said. He also pointed out that, thus far, Trump had gotten away with his strategy.
In Lewis’s mind, The Premonition is what happened when the bill came due. And yet the book isn’t really about that. His heroes are a group of doctors and medical researchers who see the pandemic coming, but are helpless to stop it when it arrives. At least that’s what the book’s marketing says. In a less than 300-page book, COVID doesn’t even arrive until page 170. It’s at least two-thirds backstory.
Lewis takes up much of the first half of the book talking about the middle-school science project of Laura Glass, a New Mexico girl with a scientist father. Laura Glass’s work, in case you don’t already know, forms the basis for the “science” of social distancing, which was the gospel of every right-thinking concerned person last year. What passes for a thesis statement in the book comes along on page 86. A researcher named Carter Mecher determines, using a model that he derived from, again, a middle-school science fair project, that “when you closed schools and put social distance between kids…flu-like disease fell off a cliff.”
There’s no ironic twist here. Lewis never comes around and says, “He was wrong. We should never have closed schools, at least not for long.” Instead, he keeps coming back to it: we should have closed schools, and the government needed to enforce strict social distancing. At one point he says schools should have been closed for “at least 12 weeks,” when, in fact, they stayed closed much longer than that. The Premonition presents no counter-evidence.
Lewis never mentions Florida, which barely closed schools and where social distancing was basically a myth. Their COVID outbreak was no worse than California’s, which had some of the tightest restrictions in the world. What about the fact that the CDC recently changed its distancing requirements at schools from six feet to three feet? What happened there? Also, we did close schools for months. Hundreds of thousands of people still died. New York City just reopened schools. Places in the world that refused to close schools had approximately the same outbreak as places that closed them completely.
The Centers for Disease Control is the real villain in The Premonition. Lewis rightly paints the agency as a political entity, not a health-focused one. The section where the CDC refuses to approve an accurate rapid COVID test right at the beginning of the pandemic is the best one in the book. But it’s also kind of unrelated to the rest of the narrative. The fact that the CDC and the Trump Administration completely botched the testing regime early in the pandemic has absolutely nothing to do with social distancing and school closures.
Michael Lewis, our greatest nonfiction narrative journalist, went looking for a thrilling narrative where quirky heroes race against the virus clock. Instead, he spent the pandemic writing what amounts to the ultimate bad COVID take.
At one point, Lewis recognizes that COVID’s rapid spread throughout American society happened largely among the working class, because they couldn’t afford the luxury of locking down and living on Zoom and takeout. But that’s his only real acknowledgment of the elitism of the social distancing policies, and of school closures. More than three million American students have dropped out of school during the pandemic. The disease didn’t cause the collapse of their education. It was government policy of lockdown and school closure, policies that Lewis, quite obviously, endorses in The Premonition. Given that reality, writing a bestselling book that promotes the efficacy of school closure seems incredibly irresponsible.
Is it possible, in this case, that Michael Lewis is actually wrong? The journalist-avatar of society’s secret hidden truths has written his usual book. But in this case he channels a certain kind of received elite wisdom. It’s essentially a 300-page story advising us to be “safer at home.” Michael Lewis, our greatest nonfiction narrative journalist, went looking for a thrilling narrative where quirky heroes race against the virus clock. Instead, he spent the pandemic writing what amounts to the ultimate bad COVID take.
Advocates of lockdown, school closure, and social distancing all desperately want to be believe that they were in the right about the pandemic. But the sad truth might just be that once COVID got loose, there was very little we could do to stop it until we developed effective vaccines. That’s playing out in India right now, where the world’s second-most populous country is going through pandemic hell. They locked down early and hard, they stayed safe. They social distanced as best they could. And look where they are now.
I’m not sure what lessons we were supposed to take away from the COVID pandemic. But I’ll bet at least 20 dollars that it’s not “we should have locked down harder.” I could be wrong. But then again, Michael Lewis could also be wrong.
This will obviously become the official narrative, though. Universal has optioned The Premonition, and assigned Lord and Miller, creators of The Lego Movie, to direct the adaptation. That seems appropriate. When it comes to Michael Lewis, they’ve sold us the idea that everything is awesome.