How the coronavirus outbreak is like a nuclear attack: An interview with Jeffrey Lewis via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists


In this interview, Lewis describes the pandemic as a “nuclear war in slow motion” and says that effectively managing both types of crises requires a cooperative, internationalist approach. In both the real world and the fictional world of his book, he sees a disaster exacerbated by dysfunction within the White House—a product not only of staffing inadequacies but also of senior advisers who are more focused on managing the president than on managing the crisis itself.


JK: During a nuclear crisis, I’d think the timelines would be much more compressed compared to what we’re seeing in the coronavirus outbreak. Is that better or worse?

JL: I don’t think it makes any difference. I don’t think giving this group of human beings more time leads to better outcomes. Of course, from the perspective of a novelist the time issue in the book creates a sense of tension. But I could easily have written the book about a pandemic, though it probably wouldn’t have been as good as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

In the nuclear field, we do worry that decisions made under tight timelines will be worse decisions, and that’s probably true. But I don’t think any amount of time would allow Trump to make better decisions. It’s just the situation might be slightly more forgiving. But as we’re learning now, it’s not. It’s not more forgiving.

JK: The response to the virus in United States has been somewhat decentralized. State and local officials are acting on their own to mitigate things in a way that they might not be able to do during a nuclear crisis. Does that help?

JL: No, I think the lack of adequate testing capacity has forced localities to step in. But unfortunately, I don’t think states and localities have the tools that they need to really combat this effectively. I don’t want to be critical of them because they’re trying to do the best they can. But there’s a reason we have a federal government. The federal government has responsibilities and it is failing abjectly at them.

Not to dwell too much on the book, but that’s the central warning of the novel, that the government has really important responsibilities.


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