How It All Fell Down
My father, who was a scientist, always told me that he preferred American science textbooks to British ones because of their clarity and simplicity. It allowed them to communicate ideas more easily. A few of his colleagues were snobbish; ‘They write in baby talk’, said one. My father felt that the style didn’t matter if it reached more people. He was right, of course.
This is the Agatha Christie theory. The author used one third of her normal vocabulary to tell complex stories simply, and by doing so created a world market in whodunnits. You’d think it would be a trick every writer would employ but no; I don’t, and no-one I know does. Why not? Snobbery, arrogance, a desire to rise above the baseline?
In 2019, the Global Health Security Index, a group that ranked all of the countries on the planet according to their readiness to deal with a global pandemic, rated the USA No.1 and Britain No.2. By 2021 there had been close to 130,000 deaths in the UK from the second most prepared country in the world. That is how badly Boris de Pfeffel Johnson fucked up. America will top out a little short of half a million deaths. To put that in perspective, World War II only managed to kill 290,000 Americans.
The knock-on effects of the virus are very far from over. It will probably return in the late autumn and winter of 2021, as all viruses do, and kill more. But its side effects will last for at least a generation. Many countries have failed to vaccinate – useless, bickering France is now more concerned with electing the Neo-Nazi National Front head Marine Le Pen than saving its vulnerable population – and without majority vaccination there can be no firebreak in the pandemic at a global scale. Even Australia, which closed its borders and put its fingers in its ears, has created the perfect conditions for a next-round clean sweep.
The invisible costs are now becoming visible. Hundreds of thousands of life-threatening illnesses were not diagnosed in the shutdown or reduction of medical services. My own cancer was scanned five months late due to the pandemic, during which time it advanced to its terminal, irreversible stage.
Michael Lewis’s ‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story’ is therefore more than just pertinent reading. When a single vaccine-making factory in Liverpool became contaminated in 2004 half of America’s flu supply was lost. Alarm bells rang, but by 2019 global advance knowledge had been replaced by complacency.
It was known early on that if a vaccine could be supplied to catch a virus before it mutated it would need to be administered not to the old, whose movements were stable and greatly reduced, but to the young, active, sexually prolific, traveling the world, intimately connected with others. The scientists had a premonition of where the answers lay, but its administration was down to politicians.
The UK had in power an anomaly, a fluke; a branded liar and charlatan braggart, a hollow Upper Class Twit with no experience of the real world. One morning Londoners awoke to discover that he had become the city’s mayor. Horrified and disbelieving, they watched as he attempted to build monuments to himself like some deranged African or Burmese dictator. Treated as a laughing stock, he was waved away, only to bounce Tigger-like into the ultimate vanity job; Prime Minister. The first thing he did was strip the cabinet of advisors and replace them with cronies.
Cometh the hour, cometh the wrong man. In America the situation was actually worse, for it had elected a man who was not even a politician, whose ludicrous reign ended with armed thugs storming the Capitol. Except that Trump continued to wreak damage on his own party by smashing it up after he had been kicked out. In Britain the blame was neatly shifted onto the advisors, as even the most rabid UK press became apologists for Johnson.
Lewis tells his story by following the science with enormous clarity and simplicity. It should make readers angry if they just connect it to their own experiences. Yet the author also exhibits the most prominent and desirable of American traits; optimism. What’s interesting is that this is no ‘I told you so’ diatribe of 20-20 hindsight, but actually feels like advance warning, a message from the very recent past to the future.
In years to come a definitive global account will be written of the catastrophe, and then we can weep.