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Michael Lewis on pandemics and Nigel Inkster on technology

Michael Lewis: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021)

Way back in October 2019, before most anyone had heard of Covid-19, a group of experts from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and The Economist Intelligence Unit developed the Global Health Security Index, which ranked some 195 countries in terms of their readiness for a pandemic. The United States came in Number 1, the most capable, and the United Kingdom Number 2.

And yet, as we now know, US performance in managing Covid-19 through 2020 and 2021 has been one of the worst of all advanced countries, with 36 million cases and more than 600,000 deaths. Celebrated author, Michael Lewis, seeks to understand and explain this conundrum in his new book, The Premonition: a pandemic story. Lewis has a handful of quirky characters through whom he tells his story in a text that is based on interviews and constructed using real events – a model he has employed through a catalogue of works, such as Liar’s Poker, The Big Short and The Undoing Project.

Lewis’ previous book, The Fifth Risk, was strangely prescient. He framed the US federal government as a manager of a portfolio of existential risks, whose experts had been neglected and abused for more than a generation. The book asked: “What happens when the people in charge of managing these risks, along with the experts who understand them, have no interest in them?” This sets the stage for The Premonition.

Lewis’ story is a portrait of a broken, dysfunctional system, not just the US public health system, but the whole society. In the telling of the story, the US federal government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) becomes the main villain.

Lewis’ argument is that you need to look beyond blaming Donald Trump and to the nation’s fragmented, underfunded public health system.

The three key characters had been working on the impact of a pathogen landing in America, and all saw that the tools to deal with one were inadequate. The central character is Charity Dean, a dynamic local public health officer in California who, during her efforts to contain a 2013 meningitis outbreak, found the CDC to be useless in a crisis. Already by January 2020, through studying Chinese social media, she was able to interpret the tragic evidence coming out of Wuhan, while plane loads of Americans were still returning home without being tested for Covid.

Then there is Carter Mecher, a critical care doctor who had been pulled into the George W. Bush administration to design a pandemic plan. He was analysing very early the available Covid data using “redneck epidemiology”. He believes that in a disease outbreak you need to get answers fast, before you know for sure what is happening, in contrast to the counter-productive perfectionism of the CDC – because by the time you know for sure, you'll be overrun. Finally, there is Joe DeRisi, a biochemist, who developed technology for rapid viral testing, while the CDC bungled testing for Covid.

President Donald Trump is described by one character in Michael Lewis’ new book as a coronavirus “comorbidity”. President Trump delivers a Covid-19 update briefing, 30 March 2020, in the Rose Garden at the White House (D Myles Cullen/White House/Flickr)

As the Trump administration was abdicating responsibility for managing Covid, these three figures came together through the “Wolverines”, a network of doctors who had previously worked in the White House together, and tried to convince the government about the seriousness of the killer virus. But as Covid spun out of control, they lost the battle, and so did America, while the CDC were not ringing the bell.

Through the battles of these three characters, we learn that America does not have a system of public health, it has 3000 disconnected public health officers who aren’t networked or led by the CDC in a serious way. Lewis’ argument is that you need to look beyond blaming Donald Trump and to the nation’s fragmented, underfunded public health system. As one of Lewis’ characters says, “Donald Trump was a comorbidity”. But surely Lewis is too generous to Trump, whose attitude towards Covid was simply reckless, suggested by his disbanding of the pandemic response unit in the White House.

How did the CDC become so ineffectual and bureaucratic? Over the years, the CDC had become like an academic institution, and highly politicised. It was no longer capable of controlling disease. No one really knew who was in control when the first signs of Covid appeared. It ultimately lost its ability to be brave, and became a mouthpiece for Trump. But in reality, the CDC may not quite be in terminal decline, as Lewis implies. President Joe Biden has appointed a new head, Rochelle Walensky, a doctor who has cared for Covid-19 patients, and the agency seems to be tackling the pandemic much more effectively.

The Premonition makes a very early and insightful contribution that should encourage American elites to reflect more deeply on how the country will respond to future pandemics and other crises in the years ahead.

The Premonition is a highly readable, non-fiction thriller, which sweeps you along through the lives of its heroes in their David and Goliath battle with the bureaucracy, constantly pitting action against bureaucratic caution. In Lewis’ writing, it seems that the eccentric scientist is always the hero. One can only wonder, however, about the risk of false alarms being rung by such heterodox scientists. For example, the 2009 swine flu outbreak proved to be less lethal than initially anticipated, and proposals for strong policies to contain the outbreak were wisely abandoned.

Lewis’ book is also curious in that Deborah Leah Birx, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator under President Trump, the White House Covid task force, and Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, barely rate a mention. In short, the book does not provide a holistic analysis, but rather a narrative focusing on the lives of its heroes.

These reservations aside, Covid-19 is a phenomenon of truly historic proportions which will over time generate an immense literature, analysing its manifold aspects. In this context, The Premonition makes a very early and insightful contribution that should encourage American elites to reflect more deeply on how the country will respond to future pandemics and other crises in the years ahead.


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Nigel Inkster: The Great Decoupling - China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy (Hurst Publishers 2021)

China has become a peer competitor with the US for a wide range of technologies, a remarkable feat for a country that was bereft of most modern technologies just four decades ago.

China has been a technological power for most of its recorded history and accounted for half of the world’s engineering inventions in the period leading up to the Industrial Revolution period. Yet it never developed a culture of science and missed the Industrial Revolution, writes Nigel Inkster in his new book, The great decoupling: China, America and the struggle for technological supremacy.

This meant that China was highly vulnerable when it came into contact with the industrialised West and Japan in the 18th century, with devastating consequences for the country. China would remain a technological backwater until its reform and opening up, launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.

Inkster, a veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service, now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, offers a forensic history of China’s technological development. He argues that, somewhat curiously, it was the writings of American futurologist Alvin Toffler that helped China’s reformist leaders see the importance of information and communications technologies in promoting the country’s economic modernisation.

The burgeoning economic interdependence with the US provided a pathway to technological progress for China, writes Inkster. As China opened its economy, it attracted investment in low-end manufacturing activities, notably the assembly of mobile phones and computers.

This enabled China to develop its technological capabilities, which were enhanced by returning Chinese talent that had been educated in the US and worked in Silicon Valley. The Chinese tech sector has also benefited from massive government subsidies and the exclusion of American tech giants from the Chinese market, a theme that could have been better developed by Inkster.

As China’s capabilities grew, so too did its discomfiture with reliance on American technology, particularly after the revelations in 2013 by Edward Snowden on US tech-enabled surveillance.  China has been promoting indigenous manufacture of technology and the concept of cyber sovereignty ever since. For Beijing, this means the right for countries to police content transiting their sovereign space. Digital and quantum technologies have also enabled China to become a major global intelligence power.

The election of Xi Jinping in 2012 as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party proved to be a major event in China’s technological development, writes Inkster. Xi grasped the importance of technology. He set the goal of China becoming the leading global technology power in the world by 2035. China is very keen to reshape the world order in its favour and is using its growing dominance in technology to shape global norms and standards for how these technologies are employed. Xi’s vision is encapsulated in the phrase ‘community of common destiny for mankind’, which is code for a China-led world order.

China’s rise as a technological power has put it on a collision course with the US, which wants to maintain its global technological supremacy. Inkster argues that China’s technological rise is a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the US. In recent years, the US has been pushing back against China, a policy led by Donald Trump’s administration and continued, for the moment, by President Joe Biden. The US wants to constrain China’s ambitions and give US companies breathing space to catch up for 5G mobile telecommunications. After all, most of the fundamental technology for Huawei’s 5G is actually American.

The ‘great decoupling’ on the tech front is starting to happen, as the US tries to disentangle its research and development and supply-chain connectivity with China. The US is now denying China access to advanced components, controlling its tech investments in the US, and putting restrictions on joint research activities and Chinese students and migrants in America.

The US has banned Huawei from its 5G network and succeeded in encouraging most Western countries to follow suit. But decoupling will be slow, and partial. Because it results in less collaboration, decoupling will likely have an adverse impact on innovation in both countries. Decoupling has also created some difficult geopolitics, particularly regarding Taiwan, which has cornered the global market for high-end semiconductors—something China can’t make and has no likelihood of making soon.

Who will win this technological competition?

The US enjoys the advantages of incumbencies—it got there first. America is ahead for most technologies and China is playing catch-up. The US has much greater strengths in foundational science, which is still a weakness for China.

But the US also has its own problems. It isn’t producing the educated people that it needs, so it has to rely on migrants. And while it’s been able to attract some of the world’s best talent, China will now be much less of a source.

For its part, China has shown remarkable ingenuity in the application of existing technologies. And it is now showing a capacity to innovate, despite the doubts of many Westerners. In some of the higher order technologies like quantum encryption, China is clearly leading the global field.

Perhaps China’s greatest risk is that political concerns about security could end up stifling entrepreneurship and innovation. At the same time, the Chinese party-state is able to employ a whole-of-nation approach to technological development that is inconceivable in a liberal democracy.

Inkster concludes that it’s far from certain that the US will win this technology competition with China. And the US will need to accept that in some areas of technology, China will dominate.

The strong point of Inkster’s book is that he traces China’s long-term technological development in the broad context of China’s history, civilisation and evolving identity. But that may also be the book’s shortcoming, as the narrative of China and America’s struggle for technological supremacy is at times clouded by the volumes of contextual information.

That said, the book contains a wealth of information on an issue that is critical for our understanding of US–China rivalry and is an excellent reference for all scholars of Sino-American relations and international relations more generally.

 

John West is an Adjunct Professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and Executive Director of the Asian Century Institute. He is author of the recent book, “Asian Century ... on a knife-edge” (PalgraveMacmillan, 2018). John’s career has included major stints at the Australian Treasury, OECD and ADB Institute.

 

3 Comments
Ruth
September 14, 2021

For decades now the WHO has had responsibility for alerting the world to new disease so it can be contained. The interview I saw with Xi Jinping was the most sycophantic I have ever seen. China's foreign ministry even came out with a written statement saying that no state was obliged to report disease, meaning it can never be trusted given more diseases come from that country than other.
Like Australia, health decisions are primarily a responsibility of and within the power of state governments under the USA constitution.
There is no mention of how China used their diaspora to buy up useful medical equipment in other countries quietly, including Australia, leaving them short. In the case of Austria, the Chinese ambassador asked their government to keep this quiet.
Xi Jinping must be very pleased that there are so many arguments about who is to blame when neither the CCP nor the WHO (generously funded especially by the USA despite its spectacular failure) are never blamed.
I like Michael Lewis's books, but I find this article biased.

Bob T
September 12, 2021

West's review of The Premonition (which I have not read yet) need clarifying with regards to his reference to Lewis's prior book, The Fifth Risk (which I have read). The Fifth Risk focuses on the formal transition from the Obama administration to Trump's. Indeed, unlike most of his other books, it has limited scope in not venturing beyond the central theme of Trump's incoming people botching (more specifically, ignoring) the transition briefings offered by the outgoing Obama people. I.e., there was no real meaningful transition because Trump and his team willfully saw no value in such information whether from ignorance or arrogance. The folly of such approach was seen early on by Lewis and eventually in a variety of screw-ups from international diplomacy to coronavirus (for the latter, the Trump team not only ignored the transition briefings, but also Trump disbanded high level people and programs put in place by the prior administration specifically to handle the next as yet unknown pandemic, to the dismay of the few hold-overs and Trump people who did understand the risks. Contrary to West's take of The Fifth Risk that experts had been ignored for a long time prior to Trump, prior transitions (especially regarding technical, non-political topics) had been a long-established, valued and honoured tradition prior to Trump. The change happened abruptly, not gradually over decades, and shown in Lewis's quirky style when the Obama people prepared for the transition briefings, but the Trump people didn't show up. When Lewis asks in The Fifth Risk (as cited by West) “What happens when the people in charge of managing these risks, along with the experts who understand them, have no interest in them?”, the "people" referred to are Trump's. Thus, any excuse that Lewis offers to Trump for softening his (Trump's) responsibility for denigration of experts must be in The Premonition as its not in The Fifth Risk.

Chris
September 09, 2021

Thanks, John. I've enjoyed so many Michael Lewis books, I didn't know he had written about the pandemic. Time for another online delivery.

 

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