Michael Lewis’s new book, The Premonition, is a superhero story — though one in which the superheroes don’t, in the end, win. It’s the true story of a group of far-sighted, tough-minded scientists who, in January last year, saw the coronavirus pandemic coming in the USA, and the politicians who wouldn’t listen to them.
And at the heart of the book is the terrible discovery, as true here as it is in the States: we imagine that, come disaster, the people we elect will look after us. We’re told they’re well prepared. But when it comes down to it, they protect not us but themselves.
The villain of Lewis’s book is the United States Centers for Disease Control, which equivocated until it was far too late and ignored the pandemic plan it had. Here in the UK, Public Health England simply didn’t have a plan. My husband, who was working for Boris Johnson at the time, came home incredulous one day in late February 2020: ‘I’ve seen the plan, and I’m afraid it’s not a plan at all. It’s just a plan to have a plan at some stage.’
The Premonition is a book about mass death and institutional cowardice and its heroes end up sidelined. So one of the strangest things about it is that it’s a blast to read. It’s excoriating but it’s also joyful — and it wasn’t until I was face to face with Michael Lewis that I understood why.
‘I hate to say it but I had the most fun pandemic,’ Lewis grins. He’s 60 but boyish, in the best sense of the word. It’s hard to have a satisfactory peer about when you’re speaking to someone on Zoom, but on the screen Lewis looks happy and his hair bounces excitedly as he talks. ‘I had so much fun writing this book. I don’t say this every time but it was so character-driven and so story-driven that basically I locked myself in a condo without any kids, without my wife, for stretches of two or three weeks at a time and it came out of me so fast.’
Faster than The Big Short or Flash Boys? Faster than Liar’s Poker? Lewis’s first proper job was for the investment bank Salomon Brothers, and it inspired Liar’s Poker, his era-defining 1989 book about the greed and corruption of Wall Street. Since then he’s written a whole slew of bestsellers and is often described as the best financial journalist alive, so it’s quite something that he’s most excited by The Premonition.
‘I’m only as good as the material I’m given, I can’t make it up, but this material is so good that… well, it’s like dancing with someone who’s a great dancer, they make you a better dancer,’ he says. ‘It was absolutely exhilarating. Meanwhile, 600,000 Americans are dying and I’m having the time of my life!’
Is that obnoxious? I think it’s refreshing. It’s exactly this lack of self-serving gravitas that makes the book so good. The Premonition isn’t ponderous, because Lewis isn’t. It’s not grim, because he’s so completely lit up with excitement about his characters.
Who was it that Lewis was dancing with in his condo? First up is a group of doctors nicknamed the Wolverines, who for the past 20 years have made it their business to understand viral pandemics. ‘A guerrilla disease–fighting operation,’ Lewis calls them. The Wolverines are led by Carter Mecher, an intensive-care doctor with a strange gift for predicting and mapping viral outbreaks. Back in the George W. Bush era, Carter wrote America’s official pandemic plan (not that anyone followed it in 2020).
Also in Lewis’s cast of characters is Joe DeRisi, inventor of Virochip, which contains DNA from every virus ever discovered and can scan for evidence of infection. And best of all, there’s Charity Dean, the plain-speaking former second-in-command of California’s Department of Public Health. Dr Dean is a bit like Reese Witherspoon with the relentless drive of Terminator 2. Through the start of 2020 she continuously sounded the alarm from inside government, but was sidelined as a result. Now, pleasingly, she’s all over TV in America, sticking it to the people who wouldn’t listen.
‘All the characters are very brave,’ says Lewis. ‘But I give Charity the most credit because she has so many reasons to be afraid. The others are kind of alpha males. There’s nothing for them to fear really. Charity, everywhere she turns, she’s like the bunny in the jungle waiting for the predator to come get her — but then the predator finds out she’s the dragon!’ Lewis laughs.
If The Premonition is a cheery book, despite the death, it’s because these brave, data-driven types are out there — weirdos and misfits, you might call them. And it’s also because they don’t run from problems like politicians do: they actively seek them out so as to fix them.
In January last year the CDC and the WHO adopted a sort of fraudulent bedside manner: ‘Don’t fret about Covid, there’s no evidence of human-to-human transmission.’ Remember that? At the time, Dr Dean wasn’t so sure. She watched the YouTube videos of Chinese authorities welding apartment doors shut to keep residents indoors, and thought: ‘This is real.’
Dr Dean and the Wolverines are experts in what Lewis calls ‘red-neck epidemiology’, using the scrappy bits of data available to plot the likely course of the virus. They were among the first to sketch out that awful, now familiar exponential curve. But why did they, in particular, see Covid coming, I ask Lewis — what traits, apart from being ballsy, do these characters share?
‘They aren’t just professionals, they’re obsessives,’ says Lewis. ‘And they’re obsessed with the problem they’re dealing with because they care. They don’t think 600,000 dead people, they think 600,000 individuals who have people who love them, who are experiencing catastrophic grief. When you’re looking at it that way you build tools that you might not if you were just doing a job. You develop intuition.’
Carter Mecher likes to compare a viral pandemic to a brush fire. ‘You cannot wait for the smoke to clear,’ he says, because ‘once you can see things clearly it’s already too late.’ You have to act before the fire is raging, and you have to be prepared to be wrong. This, according to The Premonition, was the CDC’s great failing: it wasn’t prepared to try for containment, and actively waited until it was too late rather than risk being wrong. Lewis says: ‘Cambodia contained [Covid-19], Rwanda contained it… Australia, and you’re kind of like, how come they could do it and we couldn’t?’
His book contains a telling story: on 29 January 2020, the US government repatriated 57 Americans from Wuhan and put them into quarantine for 14 days. One of the Wolverines, James Lawler, head of the Global Centre for Health Security, suggested they be tested before being released because it seemed clear that there were people who had much longer incubation periods. Lawler offered to do the testing himself, but the CDC actually forbade it.
At the same sort of time, Charity Dean was acting on her intuition and wrote a battle plan for California that included measures such as social distancing. But her boss, former CDC employee Sonia Angell, responded by simply excluding her from meetings. She told Dr Dean not to use the word ‘pandemic’: ‘You’re scaring people.’
‘Shit, they should be scared,’ said Dr Dean. She noticed, says Lewis, when the CDC made a curious pivot, from downplaying the virus to behaving as if it could never have been contained. Later, Dr Dean told Lewis: ‘The greatest trick the CDC ever pulled was convincing the world containment wasn’t possible.’
The Premonition is a celebration of Dr Dean and the Wolverines, but it’s also a warning: employ the right people for the right reasons or suffer the consequences. In California, Sonia Angell knew diddly-squat about communicable disease — her expertise was in heart disease. Governor Gavin Newsom knew that, but he wanted a person of colour in the top job. ‘It was an optics problem,’ a senior official in the health department told Lewis. ‘Charity was too young, too blonde, too Barbie.’
Lewis says: ‘Newsom had gotten himself in this mess where his administration said let’s decorate the cabinet, let’s make sure we hire a minority for the head of the health department, without asking “Is the minority qualified?” and when you had Charity Dean there. That was a catastrophic error.’
But why didn’t that change when Covid came along? Why didn’t Dr Angell stand down, or defer to Dr Dean, a trained epidemiologist? ‘I don’t know!’ Lewis says, and laughs. ‘I am always surprised by people who take jobs they’re not qualified for. Why did Rick Perry agree to be secretary of energy [under Trump]? He didn’t even know what the department did and he made an ass of himself showing everybody that.’
The Premonition tells a familiar tale: politicians are motivated by the wrong things in America, just as much as they are over here. Instead of pursuing the truth, they pursue approving headlines. But at this point in our chat, just when I’m looking forward to Lewis unleashing a little vitriol on the political class, he changes tack.
‘Politicians are kind of incentivised to be right,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s easy for you and me to say: who cares if I’m going to be called an ass on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow? But I think when you’re in it and you are constantly responding to the way people are responding to you, it becomes this churn of short-term incentives and… I’m kind of sympathetic! I think if I was in that, I would have a hard time ignoring Twitter and television and all of it.’
And in the end, to my surprise, he points the finger of blame back towards us — towards the public. ‘The quality of our citizen is in decline,’ he says. ‘Citizens don’t understand that someone is doing this hard job and sometimes they are going to be wrong and if they’re wrong, it’s not because they’re idiots or malicious or corrupt; it’s that the job is making decisions in conditions of uncertainty. I think there’s an attitude that we have towards the leaders that’s an indulgence. We’re allowed to have it because we haven’t really experienced real terror, existential terror like you did in, say, the second world war.’
So coronavirus isn’t frightening enough? We need to be more afraid, so as to behave better and more rationally? ‘Maybe if you just ratchet up the lethality a bit and you actually expose the whole population, then you might get a different response,’ he says.
‘This has been a horrible pandemic, but it is not, in the view of my characters, the big one,’ Lewis adds. ‘They all feel sure a worse one is coming.’ That, I guess, is their next premonition — and the best hope, I suppose, is that by then Dr Charity Dean and the Wolverines are actually in charge.
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