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Literature: Omens and Outbreaks

By Paul Wilner

Berkeley author Michael Lewis is known for tackling timely — and complex — topics.
Berkeley author Michael Lewis is known for tackling timely — and complex — topics.

The anatomy of a disaster is outlined in Michael Lewis’ new book.

Michael Lewis is not someone with a reputation for being a hunch player. His deeply reported, counterintuitive narratives invariably feature protagonists who outwit the system by finding new solutions to intractable problems.

The New Orleans–born author, who has long lived in the Berkeley Hills with his wife, photographer Tabitha Soren, outraged baseball traditionalists with Moneyball, his 2003 bestseller detailing how former Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane pioneered the use of data to successfully change a game addicted to seat-of-the-pants decision-making. Now, in his new book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, he tells the tale of how Charity Dean, an outlaw public health officer from Santa Barbara, along with “redneck epidemiologist” Carter Mecher and San Francisco–based biologist Joe DeRisi, co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, tried to warn administrations (from George W. Bush to Donald Trump) — of pending danger, only to be waved off by the massive bureaucracy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other vested interests.

Lewis has a gift for complicated storytelling, whether it’s about sports, the financial system (2010’s The Big Short) or, in his last book, The Fifth Risk, government officials trying to hold the fort amid the chaos of the Trump administration. The Premonition is not another inside-the-Beltway account of people trying to build their reputation, though he does detail the story of Dean, the Santa Barbara doctor promoted to assistant director of the California Department of Public Health, who tried to save lives during the pandemic while others were saving face. After confronting an earlier tuberculosis outbreak, Dean had a gut feeling of what was to come.

“The problem with pandemic management is that by the time you have certainty of knowledge, you’re too late. Do I think that certain people hone instincts that are better suited than others in that environment? I do,” says Lewis, in an interview the day after he appeared on 60 Minutes last month. “It’s a much more wicked problem than the problem of picking which baseball player to draft. … Baseball was a land of instinct that was not paying enough attention to data.”

The Premonition (W.W. Norton & Co.) Lewis’ new book focuses on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lewis gives Gavin Newsom credit for being the first governor to shut down a state, which “saved a lot of lives,” but says he whiffed the chance to announce a Chan Zuckerberg genome sequencing plan — one that could have been a national model — out of concerns by people in his circle about the optics, namely, “It would look bad to have anything to do with [Mark] Zuckerberg.” Lewis adds, “I’m not talking about the French Laundry stuff, or that kind of crap, but I think of him as someone who’s being half brave, when you need him to be all brave. … He was constantly putting his finger in the wind, trying to figure out what he can get away with rather than how he can lead people.” He also cites the failure to adequately defend public health officers in San Mateo and Orange counties who were being harassed for enforcing face mask regulations. Lewis’ overall grade for California’s response: “B-minus.”

“The Bay Area has all these tech-savvy people, but getting them together with the apparatus of government is like trying to marry a tiger and an elephant,” he says. “But there’s no reason it has to be that way,” he adds, using the example of how DeRisi’s scientists were able to put together spit-and chewing- gum labs in record time and offer free tests to local hospitals, which weren’t equipped — and were unwilling — to accept them. “Someone’s going to figure out how much money the state gave to Quest or LabCorp — billions of dollars — for tests that were useless. They could have pivoted quickly to places that actually knew how to do the work; but as Priscilla Chan told me, it was like trying to give things to people in the public health sector who didn’t know how to receive it.”

Ever the contrarian, Lewis doesn’t blame Trump entirely for the botched response — though one of his sources calls him a “comorbidity.” But he’s astonished that the government didn’t draw on the resources of those who were begging to be heard. “Call me crazy, but when you have people who invented pandemic planning [for the Bush administration], you might want to take advantage of that,” he says. “The thing that ran through the lives of all the characters I wrote about is that they were almost there, but there was something that didn’t work. My takeaway from it all is that at the bottom, it’s a managerial problem. It’s not like we don’t have the talent or resources — we just don’t manage them properly.”

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