There’s nobody Michael Lewis likes better than a hero who gives a defiant middle finger to the conventional wisdom: The short-seller who bets against a soaring mortgage market; the equities trader who insists that the stock exchange is “rigged.
And then there’s Mr Lewis himself, who has made his own name and fortune by writing against expectations, taking arcane subjects that most of his mega-readership might know next to nothing about and skilfully unfurling their intricacies in all of their dramatic glory. His last book, The Fifth Risk, was about the unsung heroes of the federal bureaucracy and how the Trump White House was making their job harder, if not impossible. Mr Lewis’s new book, The Premonition, reads like a sequel of sorts, as he follows medical renegades who warned for years that something like the Covid-19 pandemic was bound to happen, while the federal government proved inordinately unhelpful. It’s a lesson that Charity Dean, a California health official, says she learned a long time ago: “No one’s coming to save you.”
Ms Dean is the most memorable of the main characters in The Premonition, which includes the doctors Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, who were part of the pandemic planning team in the George W Bush administration; a biologist and MacArthur “genius” named Joe DeRisi; and Bob Glass, a scientist whose 13-year-old daughter’s science fair project became the basis for the “social distancing” model of disease control.
The title of The Premonition suggests that the people in this book harboured a sixth sense about the future, but Mr Lewis suggests that they weren’t prophetic; they were just competent, dedicated individuals who were paying attention. They had read up on the flu pandemic of 1918. They saw what happened with SARS in 2003, and what almost happened with the swine flu in 2009. They knew that whatever system was supposed to contain disaster was really a “patchwork.”
True to form, Mr Lewis makes few grand claims for what he finds, preferring instead to let the curated details speak for themselves. “I think this particular story is about the curious talents of a society, and how those talents are wasted if not led. It’s also about how gaps open between a society’s reputation and its performance,” he writes in the prologue.
The main question running through The Premonition is how, when it came to the initial Covid response, a very rich country that was ranked first globally in pandemic readiness in 2019 managed to incentivise almost all the wrong things. Mr Lewis describes a health care system whose for-profit operations are so entrenched that hospitals last spring couldn’t even avail themselves of a non-profit lab that was faster and free, because the hospital computers were incapable of coding for a $0 test. Staffers at the lab eagerly awaited a shipment of precious nasal swabs from the Strategic National Stockpile that turned out to be a bunch of Q-Tips. A venture capitalist offering to help alleviate the nasal swab shortage procured 5,000 eyelash brushes.
This method of hewing so tightly to his characters’ perspectives gives the narrative its undeniable propulsion, but it also comes at a cost. He doesn’t supply any endnotes, or even a sense of how many people he talked to. His main characters are presented to us as they would undoubtedly like to appear: charmingly obsessive, unwaveringly principled and unfailingly right.
At several points, he transcribes long block quotes from Mr Hatchett’s journal entries — essentially handing him the mic. He portrays Sonia Angell, the former public health director for California, who happened to be Mr Dean’s boss and nemesis, as monstrously incompetent, which may be true, but he doesn’t include any comment from Ms Angell. When a figure is about to get eviscerated in print, journalists are at least supposed to give her a chance to explain herself; Mr Lewis may have done this, but his spellbinding narrative is so driven by Ms Dean’s point of view that it doesn’t give any indication that he did.
Ms Lewis knows that one person’s story will never convey the entire picture. Yet to judge by the morality tale he offers in The Premonition, his own method is to choose a side and run with it.
He ends with what’s apparently intended as a heart-warming epilogue about Ms Dean’s decision, a year into the pandemic, to enter the private sector. She has named her venture The Public Health Company. “We’re going to do private government operations, like Blackwater,” she says. For some readers, her reference to a notorious mercenary force might sound ominous, but there’s no scepticism or pushback from Ms Lewis, nothing to suggest that he might see it differently from Ms Deans: as the brilliant idea of an honourable person whose only intention is to do the right thing.
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