Lewis has a way of personalizing large-scale data-driven stories through anecdotes about key individuals. He has done this here, focusing on some public health and science figures you’ve never heard of who were instrumental in driving some of the more successful efforts at fighting the COVID pandemic. But it doesn’t chronicle an overall success. Lewis is frank in recounting America’s overall failure in its response, largely due to governmental bureaucracy and political considerations. In a way, it’s an indictment of democracy itself since no politician wanted to order people to give up their freedoms. Staying power was more important than saving lives. It’s ironic that the most authoritarian regime America has ever had was so afraid to act in authoritarian manner, e.g. ordering lockdowns, testing, vaccinations, and mask wearing, when other developed countries around the world were.
He tries to write a tale of unsung heroes working more or less underground for no recognition or pay, or, worse, at risk of losing their jobs for trying to save lives. The CDC comes off abysmally in this book and the anti-science views of politicians on both sides, although mostly the Trump administration, is shocking. The narrative doesn’t quite come off, however. The heroes may have done their best, but they didn’t really make much difference. It’s obvious that most of the human interest stories about the “heroes” came from them and I suspect they supplied more than a little hyperbole and self-serving editing. There was often a whiff of whining and victim mentality.
Even so, the book is a very engaging and informative read. I felt like I was looking “under the hood” at what really went on during the pandemic and how we as a nation (and an often uncooperative public) can do better in the next one. I recommend the book.