Michael Lewis on the Unlikely Trio That Defeated the Pandemic

The saga of local public health officials tasked with fighting epidemic disease, and their clashes with national health authorities who didn’t care, was a perfect recipe for putting readers to sleep. But Michael Lewis made it into high drama.

I couldn’t put it down. That’s about the worst opening for a book review that I can think of, but I did read Lewis’s The Premonition: A Pandemic Story in one sitting – despite my having gobbled up reams of literature about COVID-19 in the last year and a third.

This is the second of Michael Lewis’s books about the micro-functioning of government. It is a sequel to his 2018 book, The Fifth Risk, which was about the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce under the Trump administration. In that volume, Lewis coaxed us into appreciating the diligent work done by experts several layers down from the top, working in agencies that we know little about. (The first four risks are not specific threats but categories: severe and mild consequences, plotted against low and high likelihood. The fifth one is project management, as unlikely a topic for a page-turner as has ever been chosen.2)

While The Fifth Risk chronicled the work of federal government employees, The Premonition focuses on the local ones who interact daily with the people they’re sworn to protect. Of course, in a pandemic, local issues quickly become national and global ones, but it’s at the level of homes, schools, and hospitals where the peculiar characteristics of a disease and the habits of the people who contract it are first noted. Only then does information filter through to the familiar national authorities.

The heroine and the heroes

The heroine of the book is Dr. Charity Dean, who started out in Santa Barbara, California’s public health department, became assistant public health director for the state, and is now an entrepreneur and professor at the University of Southern California. In a 60 Minutes interview, Lewis recalled, “Charity…thinks she's all alone, all alone in the world, aware in January that this pandemic [will] sweep through the United States and nobody's doing anything about it, including her state government.”3

Soon, she is introduced to a renegade group of doctors called the Wolverines, named after a team of high-school guerrilla warriors in the 1984 movie Red Dawn (you can’t make this up). As the team takes shape, her concerns begin to filter upward, but only after encountering roadblocks at the highest levels of government.

The book, like many of Lewis’, is built around an individual toiling in relative obscurity to achieve something good: think of Leigh Anne Touhy, who raises a very unusual son in The Blind Side, and Brad Katsuyama, who builds a system for defeating greedy high-frequency stock traders in Flash Boys. Accounts of ordinary people who turn out to be extraordinary are appealing – and Lewis is a master of the genre. Charity Dean is the key figure, but two Wolverines also play central roles in The Premonition.