In his new book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, Michael Lewis does what Michael Lewis does better than anyone: He makes a problem of apparently ungodly complexity not only comprehensible but also a pleasure to be around. He does this by finding someone who sees the problem more clearly than others do (and invariably more clearly than the people in charge do), and then makes the problem as alive to the reader as the individual. In Moneyball, the hero was Oakland A’s g.m. Billy Beane; in Flashboys, a stock market reformer named Brad Katsuyama; and in The Big Short, a motley assortment of non-comforming finance industry insiders.
The Premonition makes sense of the COVID-19 pandemic through three people, each of whom knows a great deal about how to stop it—and none of whom is ever approached by the U.S. government: A “redneck epidemiologist” named Carter Mercher who had written the closest thing the government had to a pandemic strategy; Joe DeRisi, a McArthur Fellow who once built a chip containing all the world’s viruses; and Dr. Chastity Dean, an obscure local health official in California. Lewis, who had been working on a sports book when the pandemic broke out, managed to find all three, understand what was going on, and write the book, all before it was safe to take off our masks.
Are you getting a lot of ‘Well, that was fast’?
In fact I was much slower than I was with Moneyball. When I find the subject and I know it’s a book, and I don’t have problems with like access to characters or long flights to get all the material at hand, a year is about what it takes for me. I beat my deadline, believe it or not.
In Moneyball you wrote about how the story emerged to you fairly deep into the reporting. But you knew what you were going for here. Or did you?
I knew that we were dealing with very early on a catastrophically bad response. And I knew that it was related to stuff I’d written in The Fifth Risk. And I wanted to know more, and I wanted to be with people you wanted to be with in a pandemic, people who kind of knew what was going on and knew what they were talking about.
And I thought these are kind of the three things I want to know about and these three characters, these wonderful characters, I’ll worry about what’s gonna happen later. So I just started reporting them.
Do you have to like your character to make it work?
Yes. There are people who, you know, when they’re in the room with you, you just want to leave. If they’re like that, I would never write about them, because I have to spend too much time with them. I’d feel creepy if I didn’t admire them on some level because I’m so working my way into their lives, it would be under false pretenses if I thought they were like bad news.
So how much time did you spend with these guys, with Carter and Charity, say?
Carter I flew to Atlanta in August and spent some time in Carter’s backyard. I was in Atlanta for a week. ‘Cause I just felt uncomfortable not seeing him in the flesh. Although, there is something Carterish about not actually being with Carter, about doing it all phone and email. He wrote a thousand pages to me in email, and we spent I don’t know how many hours on the phone.
Charity will tell you I basically moved into her life. Charity will tell you that kind of three months into it she felt like I knew her better than either of her ex-husbands. And Joe, Joe was the most at hand cuz Joe lives across the bridge. It was immersive with all three of them, just different ways.
I was surprised to learn that George W. Bush got the U.S. government to start planning for a pandemic, having read The Great Influenza, John M. Barry’s book on the 1918 pandemic, on vacation.
You gotta imagine he was a little stressed when he read the book, right? It was 9/11 in his rearview mirror and he has Katrina on his desk. And so it’s kind of like, “What’s gonna happen next?” The speed with which they generated the illusion of a plan was incredible. Right, because like a week later Rajiv [Vendayaka, a Homeland Security aide] has this thing that Bush uses to give a speech than ends up getting Congress to authorize seven billion dollars of spending.
And there’s a moment that makes you proud of our government, that they thought find the interesting people in different agencies and bring them together and let’s see what happens. It’s enterprise. I mean finding Carter Mecher is not easy. That they found Carter is incredible. Yes, I think it was a tribute to Bush that that happened.
Institutions failed us. But people stepped up. Is that essentially the main lesson of the pandemic?
It depends on what kind of lesson you’re looking for. I would say that the first lesson of the pandemic is that we don’t have a public health system. We don’t have a system. And so what you’re seeing is people doing extraordinary things in response to the absence of a system, that they should not have to do.
The second lesson is that divided, we die. That you cannot do this thing the way it was done in a patchwork way. Fighting the pandemic is like fighting a war. If the Russians invade we wouldn’t tell Montana and Alabama to field their armies and see if they can coordinate. You have no hope containing it and much less hope in generally like saving people’s lives if Florida does one thing and California does another thing.
The third thing is one of the big lessons that we’re missing: It isn’t an either or thing, lives or livelihoods, containment of the virus or the economy. If you let it loose your economy collapses too. People aren’t going to restaurants if two million people are dying. On the other hand, if you actually aggressively contain the thing at the front end, you get your economy back. The disruption to the economic activity in, say, Australia is far less because they were aggressive for the virus. It’s not either or. It’s sort of neither or both.
What are the practical fixes? Beyond making sure that the director of the CDC is a civil servant again? You trace the degradation of that institution to 1977, when they started serving at the pleasure of the President.
Well, think about that. It’s like we’ve created at the top of the American government a whole bunch of renters, as opposed to home owners. That all these people are in these jobs are in these jobs for eighteen months to two years and they’re presidential appointees.
Two problems: One they’re thinking short term and, two, they’re beholden to some—they’re on a short leash, a political leash. It’s a huge lesson. There are a whole bunch of jobs that should be career jobs and it should be the norm to spend a decade or a bit. Because if you’ve got to live in the house you’re gonna just treat it differently, you’re gonna manage it differently. You’re not gonna let its battlefield command abilities in the CDC degrade because actually you don’t think a pandemic’s gonna happen in the eighteen months you’re there. Had the institution been as strong as it was, it would have been much, much harder for the Trump administration to do what it did with it. The CDC director would have been Fauci squared.
What else would have to be different?
America would have to be less politically polarized. It would have to be more about looking for a good solution, rather than looking to pin blame. Which is part of the reason CDC director ends up being a presidentially appointed job—is if the White House feels the need to control everything ’cause if something goes wrong they get blamed for it.
Trust is what’s been lost. It would require the people to basically trust the institution and the experts. The mistrust that has been so [pressed] into the minds of the American public about its government expresses itself in all kinds of strange ways, but one is to put all these people on a much shorter leash when they’re making decisions. So we’re paying a price for mistrust.
Your books don’t do that, your books celebrate understanding. They have this kind of jaunty intellectualism.
I’m too happy to write a tragedy. Let me put it another way. The things that I can see making swing on a page often involve big problems, big system problems and people who perceive them and try to do something about them.
So when I was thinking about this book I was writing I thought it rhymed both with Moneyball and with Big Short, but especially The Big Short. That you have this really broken system, and the center of the system doesn’t—it’s not where you go for answers. If you want to know what’s going on in January of 2020 you don’t go to the CDC, you don’t go to the White House, you go to Carter Mecher’s desk beside his bed in the suburbs of Atlanta.
Or to Charity Dean stuffed in an office and being ignored by the California Department of Public Health.
Or you’re gonna go to Joe DeRisi. And these people who in a sane world would be running things or managing things are on the fringes always kind of interest me.
And I do feel that part of what’s going on in my books is I’m sort of making right in a narrative what was wrong in life. The guys in Big Short, I’m thrusting them front and center because what they were saying should have been paid attention to at the time they were saying it. And I’m putting these three people front and center in The Premonition ’cause their status should have been higher, they should have been running the pandemic.
Where are they now? Carter and Joe are advisers to Charity’s start-up, The Public Health Company. Does that mean the private sector is the answer?
You know it’s so depressing to think that that’s where we come in this country, that the only way to build an institution that can do the kinds of things that the public sector needs to do is to do it in the private sector.
Charity has this fantasy she’s gonna network all the public health offices through a private company. And she does have county public health offices trying to become her customers. And maybe she will do that. But really, why? I’m glad she’s doing it, but why isn’t this being done already out of the federal government? Charity thinks that there’s just not the energy and the will in the public sector, or the freedom or the resources to do it. And I think she thinks there’s a kind of bank shot: She’s gonna build this institution with private capital and it will serve a private sector function. But either she or she and her team, or she and her team and her software at some point will reenter the public sector, when needed.
We are in this weird state in our country where we have so debased the public sector and people’s feelings about the public sector that we’re at the place of considering second-best solutions by doing things the public sector needs to do in the private sector.
Isn’t that the question at the heart of the book? Why this “rogue group of patriots,” as you call them, had to find one another and do the work their bosses weren’t doing?
That’s the big takeaway. Why the hell we don’t manage ourselves smarter? And everybody’s kind of woken up to this at once, like every CEO in America is now like realizing we have to be engaged in politics in ways they don’t like to because it’s so screwed up. I’m just wondering if the book can kind of amplify that conversation.
And to thrust front and center these particular characters. Because I think they’ll do things that I can’t. Because they know shit. I didn’t know—I learned from them. I got a D in biology myself when I was in high school. So I should not be testifying in front of the Senate about what we do as a country. But Carter Mecher, Charity Dean and Joe DeRisi should. And I’m hoping that happens, that people just start paying attention to people they should pay attention to.