Monday 9 May 2022

Power fosters political inertia

Five years ago, I cited a couple of short pieces by/ about/ with Michael "Exposé" Lewis. Check this one about the transition from Obama to the Trump administration. What strikes me, in the reprise, is the superficial quality of the discourse. There are three fat-salaried people on the other side of the CBS News-desk and they want a wrap on a key element of political and government dysfunction in three minutes.

A couple of months back, my old grad school pal P ordered me to read The Premonition: A Pandemic Story [NPR] by Michael Lewis. I'm an institutionalised bloke; can obey orders, so I put in train its translation from a shelf in Dalkey, South Dublin to a bin in Tramore Co Waterford awaiting my collection. Viva the national electronic library service! Lewis is an accomplished and successful non-fiction author, with an agent, a publisher, editors and friends-who-read. It is no surprise therefore that The Premonition reads easy: weaving several parallel, same-time, threads into a coherent warm blanket of understanding. Part of the skill is deciding which of the stories is the hook and which can be left to later chapters. Indeed, I'm sure that leaving researched and written characters on the cutting room floor is another part of the process. Must be a little galling to be interviewed at length and not get name-checked in the published book.

Because it is A pandemic story rather than the Official History of SARS-CoV2, Lewis has chosen to centre the tale on the Three Covideers shown above 

  • Joe DeRisi, a super-smart, tech-savvy, open-handed, molecular biologist, epidemiologist and genome sequencer from UCSF
  • Charity Dean, a no-nonsense, buck-stops-here California Public Health physician
  • Carter Mecher, a smartest-bloke-in-the-room medical data-slinger and medical historian from the Veterans Administration

These are the people who were right, knew they were right early on and tried to overcome the inertia, terror and vested interests of people, institutions and corporations who were doing just nicely in a warm bath of status quo. In the interests of balance, Lewis finds people on the Other Side - whose actions, or more generally inaction, hyped up the impact of the pandemic. First among these Bad Hats is the CDC, which Lewis characterizes as a political tool, utterly risk-averse and mired in red-tape. Thus, even if it was clear what policy would save most lives or alleviate the pinch-points in response protocols, it was institutionally impossible to find a CDC Effective with sufficient authority to implement a change that was a clear public good. Close reading of the history of the pandemic may conclude that it was impossible for the CDC to implement any change, like ever. Lewis says. "And it's removed the brave ones. The brave ones have all got their heads chopped off. So it's sort of institutionalized a cowardice that we're going to need to face up to so that this business of punishing people who are doing their damnedest to try to save us from ourselves has got to stop."

As well as a poke at John Ioannidis, the fallen angel of epidemiology, Lewis also singles out Sonia Angell, Charity Dean's boss at California Public Health as the main impediment preventing Dr Dean from being brave . . . and stomping SARS-CoV2 into oblivion with, like, public health measures. PHMs are actions which inhibit individual freedom so as to protect "society" or its more vulnerable members. This idea puts its finger on the pulse of politics over the last 40 years: since Margaret Thatcher announced "There is no such thing as Society". In this worldview you and I have no obligation to the dispossessed, the future or the planet. Dean, DeRisi and Mecher and their team were sure that only by early intervention and draconian curtailment of individual rights could the virus be brought to heel. Angell, along with the POTUS, many senior political appointees and public representatives, didn't see a virus with a death-rate of 1.5% as something to get the economy [and, yes, Society too] all bent out of shape about. I don't doubt that your mind is made up on these matters - as well as, half-alphabetically, antigen tests, boosters, China, D-vitamin, entry requirements, hydroxychloroquine, Ivermectin, Johns Hopkins, kids-as-carriers, long-covid, masks . . .

If you are a covid-interventionist, then you'll probably enjoy The Premonition.

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