The Premonition: A Pandemic Story By Michael Lewis
The Premonition, Michael Lewis’s new book about the COVID 19 pandemic, is an interesting work. Reading it, Lewis’s ode to brave Cassandra trapped in an ineffective pandemic response, one can’t help but watch the film in one’s head.
Author of Liars Poker, Moneyball, Blind Side and The Big Short, Lewis says that a California doctor called Charity Dean was one of the people who recognized the real danger of the virus in the rest of the country. Lewis writes that Dean tried to get state officials to do everything they could to access the data and act quickly to ensure the virus did not spread.
Michael Lewis’ first book, semi-autobiographical Liar Poker, drew on his own experience in the 1980s as a Bond salesman to tell a vivid story of Wall Street’s predatory culture. His new book The Premonition is the story of a group of doctors and scientists who are trying to get the U.S. government to take pandemic control seriously. One of the Wolverines, a Santa Barbara County health official named Charity Dean, told Mr. Lewis in early 2020 that California should close its borders until it can figure out how much of the virus is circulating in the United States and follow Thailand’s example of requiring everyone entering the country to wear a GPS bracelet so authorities know who is not following quarantine rules.
Reading this book has given us greater appreciation for the many years of hard work that has helped to alleviate the horrors of the COVID 19 pandemic. It highlights facts such as that the US public health system has failed, that the US CDC was not designed to play the role many thought it would during the pandemic, that plans developed by the Bush and Obama administrations were thwarted and that genomic analyses were developed to determine where the virus originated and how it spread.
According to Lewis, the tragedy that became America’s coronavirus pandemic was a perfect storm of responses from then-President Donald Trump, the long history of CDC politicization and the lack of a comprehensive public health system. Lewis’s reconstruction of the causes of the dysfunction of our dysfunctional public health system, revealed in the wake of the pandemic that swept across the country in 2020, is breathtaking. In three hundred pages, he describes the heroic efforts of a handful of medical professionals working behind the scenes to get the country to respond effectively to the COVID pandemic.
Predictably, Lewis’s book about the US government’s grotesque handling of the pandemic is the latest entry in the major Trump book channel, but the 45th president is only marginally present on its pages. The book gets off to a slower start, as Lewis paints vivid portraits of Mecher, California’s deputy health chief, and Charity Dean, the governor.
In the latter job, Charity Dean was instrumental in fighting the COVID pandemic in California. Like Lewiss’ other pandemic heroes, Dean marooned in the politicized, sluggish public health system of California was a stubbornly empirical, unentimental, bureaucratic outsider – a woman of swift, determined action. Dean – the heroine of the book – who helped make California the North Star of pandemic control, eventually gave up public health and switched to the private sector, having her talent and wisdom undone at every turn.
The central figures who would address the unfolding Covid crisis are an anarchist group called the Wolverines, referred to in the narrative as “Wolverines” because they circle, chew and spit on the stupid, dull fools at the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the county health departments. One of those villains is Dean, deputy director of the California Department of Health and Human Services, who has become something of an underdog heroine in the days since Cox’s first appearance, battling federal authorities to address the threat. The White House’s Covid task force is made up of “people who had bad inkling, not of the White House, but of Trump,” Lewis writes in the book, as well as the comorbidity of Covid under the CDC and its leaders.
As Lewiss pointed out in his previous book, The Premonition, the risk is that the Trump administration will dismantle the regulatory state and replace qualified people with political appointments. The difference between the main characters in his book and those in the premonition is that they understand the seriousness of COVID-19, while other health professionals are wrong about what they are doing in this area.
For Michael Lewis, our great narrative nonfiction journalist, writing the pandemic amounts to the worst thing COVID can do. In January in an interview with The New York Times, Lewis described the book as if he were working on a superhero story – even though superheroes seem to be losing the war. In this sense, Lewis constructed The Premonition like an animation: the way he introduces his characters advance the story, but each character or element seems slightly in line to get into the book, and what is brought into the story before does not indicate the importance of characters coming in.
Lewis’s book brims with the same energy as it proceeds and tells the story of how the American establishment failed to gather the only people who could have made a difference in the early stages of the pandemic.