Michael Lewis, author of bestselling books like Moneyball and The Big Short, often writes about freethinking mavericks who are up against some institutional status quo. The aforementioned books were about baseball and corporate finance. His new one, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, is about the scientific freethinkers who both predicted and managed the US's Covid-19 crisis in the face of bureaucratic ineptitude.
Some have set Lewis up as a bit of a soothsayer. In a 2019 interview he suggested that only a pandemic would shock the American people into appreciating government again. “I was being asked what it would take to jar the culture in its relationship to its government,” he says. “We allowed ourselves to get into this very odd relationship with the government where some large part of the population viewed it as the enemy… The relationship between the American people and government has a little bit in common with the relationship Eastern Europeans, before the fall of the wall, had with their government. But it’s a false relationship because the American people can change it at any time... My working theory is that it’s a byproduct of the luxury of American life, a byproduct of a very long stretch of peace and prosperity.... There are horrible problems with inequality [in the US] but the top half of the society, that actually governs the place, hasn’t felt real existential fear. There’s no sense like, ‘Oh, sh*t, this place is going to fall apart’ or ‘we’re going to be attacked’, or ‘my kids are going to die’… I didn’t really see the Russians or the Chinese invading, so a virus seemed more likely. And I think I was only partly right.”
Why only partly right? “The back end of that quote was, it had to threaten the rich as much as it threatens the poor. Pretty early on, you could see that the pain of this was going to be unevenly distributed too, like the pain of our wars. And so it didn’t shock the culture quite as much as the pandemic in my imagination.”
The Premonition is a follow-up to his book, The Fifth Risk, which dealt with the erosion of governmental institutions in the context of the Trump administration. “The Fifth Risk is a celebration of these people inside the government who aren’t being celebrated and should be,” he says, “and it’s a defenestration of the Trump administration. But it also sort of implied and said that this has been going on since Reagan. [There’s a] corrosion of the tools of risk management that the government has and that can’t be replaced by the private sector. The whole point of the Fifth Risk is that something bad is going to happen, and it will be mismanaged.”
All my characters are great teachers… and they have to be because they're teaching a total ignoramus: me
And so, surprisingly, the villain in The Premonition isn’t really Trump (in the book Trump is described as merely a “comorbidity”) but the CDC (the Centre for Disease Control) which Lewis depicts as risk-averse and ineffective. The heroes of The Premonition are a ragtag group of scientists and public health officials, working to create a plausible crisis response despite the inept approaches of official government.
Lewis's subjects include biochemist Joe Derisi, who creates many of the tools used to detect disease, Carter Mecher who, during George W Bush's administration, devised a plan for containing pandemics, and Charity Dean, assistant director of the California Department of Health, who had to bypass her superiors to stop the disease spreading. "Nobody should have to be as brave as Charity Dean was, just doing her job," says Lewis.
The story, like Lewis's other books, is headed for the cinema, bought by Universal Studios the day before we talk. "Interestingly, like the Big Short, it attracted genius comic talent not drama talent," he says. "It's a directing team called Lord and Miller [who created The Lego Movie]. This is like Adam McKay grabbing The Big Short all over again, the interaction between a comic sensibility and essentially tragic material… The best comic writers are deadly serious... And I think they saw in the characters the potential for comedy in the middle of tragedy."
He recounts some episodes from the book he finds darkly funny. They include a bit where Derisi must stab a snake in the heart to determine the cause of a snake pandemic, and the time Dean is obstructed in her investigation of a possible TB pandemic. The obstruction is such that she ends up doing an autopsy in the open air “with a pair of garden shears… with all these guys in hazmat suits around her”.
Finding characters like Derisi and Dean is crucial to how Lewis tells stories. He opened a file on Derisi years before he had any book to put him in. I'm reminded of something the writer Jon Ronson once said about how some very important stories don't get told because the powerful people involved are uninteresting.
“I think I agree with that,” says Lewis. “It’s haphazard. I could not teach a young writer how to find a character because it’s very personal... For me, it’s a personal excitement about who this person is. I’m just happy they’re on the planet… They’re saying things that are lighting up my brain. All my characters are great teachers… and they have to be because they’re teaching a total ignoramus: me. They’ve got this moron on their hands and they have to get into his thick brain the difference between a virus and a bacteria.”
He once asked Dean what it was like to have him around all the time asking questions. “She got very serious and she said, ‘Around about September, I was saying to myself, ‘Nothing about this man’s process inspires confidence’… You kept asking me the same questions… You’re taking notes and you couldn’t read your own handwriting. You didn’t seem to grasp some things. I thought, if you weren’t a bestselling author, I would have just said, ‘We’re not doing this any more.’”
He uncovers the story of David Sencer, a former head of the CDC who, in the 1970s, correctly organised mass immunisation for a swine flu epidemic that never came
Characters are so central to how he thinks about his stories, that when I mention his 2011 Vanity Fair story about the Irish financial crisis he exclaims, with glee “Morgan Kelly!” (the Cassandra like economist who predicted our economic downfall). Does he recall why he was interested in writing about Ireland? “It was part of a larger project,” he says. “The same thing happened in a lot of different cultures – a culture was put alone in a dark room with a giant pile of money, and they could act out their fantasies on that money. And how did the fantasy differ from culture to culture? [Then, to write it] it was just about coming over there and marinating in all things Irish. That was a gas.”
With his new book, by investigating the careers of Dean, Derisi, Mecher and others, Lewis creates a picture of what has gone wrong with the US's institutions. He uncovers the story of David Sencer, a former head of the CDC who, in the 1970s, correctly organised mass immunisation for a swine flu epidemic that never came. The public outcry led to him losing his job. The leadership of the CDC became pathologically risk-averse and this was further compromised by senior public jobs becoming political appointments.
Pandemic preparedness became dependent on the interest of elected politicians. In the noughties someone gave George W Bush The Great Influenza, John Barry's book about the 1918 pandemic. It was in the wake of 9/11 and Bush's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Lewis laughs. "Who hands him this book for summer reading? It's so cruel."
A terrified Bush got two of Lewis's heroes, Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett, to prepare a pandemic response, that, in Lewis's telling, invented our current notion of "social distancing". But then, over time, all of that pandemic expertise drifted away from the White House. The US ends up with what Lewis calls "the L6" problem, where the people you need in a crisis are deep in the bureaucracy far from where the decisions are being made.
In The Premonition, a group of scientists and public health doctors across the US are unofficially having conference calls to organise Covid responses independently of the government. At one point, Ken Cuccinelli, a member of the Trump administration, turns up on the call and pleads with Dean, a relatively junior public health official, to do something about the pandemic. "My country is a bizarre place," says Lewis.
The Premonition goes beyond a simple left/right narrative. It contains robust criticisms of both the US’s mercenary private “industrial-medical complex” and a compromised public sector. But many important jobs, says Lewis, can only be done by government. And good government requires an ability to make decisions “in conditions of uncertainty, like a baseball manager, or a Wall Street trader”.
In contrast, he says, the CDC had, by the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, evolved into an institution that demanded certainty before all decisions. This is a problem across the public sector. “Every [private sector] CEO is making decisions in conditions of uncertainty. And if CEOs were judged as harshly as public servants they’d all lose their jobs in three weeks.”
'...The virus is making the argument and, eventually, the virus's argument will win'
So how do we “fix” public service bureaucracies? “If you gave me five minutes with Biden the first word out of my mouth would be ‘incentives’,” he says. “You’ve got to create much more upside in federal service. And these risk management pockets that are backed by scientific expertise, like the CDC, they’ve got to be put at some remove from the political process ... Appoint [the head of the CDC] for 15 years, so they stay through administrations ... Highlight the federal successes. Pay them better. And, also, some of the downsides: you’ve got to be able to fire them when they’re no good.”
Does he worry about the effects of vaccine denial in the US? He doesn’t, he says. “It’s not like [saying] ‘Obama is born in Kenya’ where you can sustain the unreality because there’s really nothing real that happens to affect you. In this case, if you believe something that’s not true you are more likely to die, or someone you love is more likely to die… The virus is making the argument and, eventually, the virus’s argument will win.”
Lewis is, in fact, cautiously optimistic about the direction things are going right now. He feels that the crisis has led to a wider appreciation of the importance of government. "You can see that Biden is more full-throated in his explanations of the purpose of government than anybody has been in a long, long time," he says. "Obama made some noise in this direction. The most famous Obama speech apropos of this was the 'You didn't build this' speech [where he was] talking to a notional entrepreneur and saying 'Yeah you did great. But you didn't do it all. Someone built the roads your trucks travel over'. He got such blowback. And it was just a sane speech. It was a beautiful speech. The fact that [Biden is] making the argument, and it seems to be selling is a very good sign. It's quite possible we're entering into a new period in our relationship with government and the pandemic pushed us there."
What is the next crisis worthy of the Lewis treatment? “My eldest child... who’s a junior in college right now, has been badgering me to write a climate change book,” he says. “And I say, ‘I agree. It’s the subject’… I just don’t know how to do it ... It may be that I haven’t looked hard enough... It might be a surprising character. It might be a really smart money manager who has been making bets on the collapse of the world, a Big Short-like character. But I don’t know who it is. And without that, who cares what I have to say about climate change? I have to find the person, that I care so much about what they say, that I want to bring it to a reader.”