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The 'ignored characters' of the pandemic and why their premonitions were pushed aside


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Thanks to the U.S.' domestic vaccine campaign, cases here continue to drop.

But this success prompts further reflection on why more than 500,000 Americans died and why the initial response failed to contain the virus more effectively.

A new book tells the story of a few people who tried to steer this country on a different path.

William Brangham is back for the latest from our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

William Brangham: That's right.

There were a handful of researchers, scientists and public health officials who seemed to have an early, prescient understanding of how bad this pandemic would hit the United States and what we could do to avert it.

Michael Lewis' new book, "The Premonition," tells the story of this unusual group and how they tried their very best to get those in positions of power to listen and to respond.

Michael Lewis, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

As I mentioned, this book focuses on this small, unusual, secretive group in some ways, who, as your title suggests, were able to see what seemingly many in the government were not able to see.

Tell us a little bit. Who were these people and what is it that they were seeing?

Michael Lewis: At the center of it is a local public health officer named Charity Dean.

And it's -- they're the ignored characters of this pandemic, because they're the ones who have been fighting disease on the ground forever. And she had seen firsthand that we were ill-equipped, in particular, the CDC was ill-equipped to actually engage when there -- when the shooting started.

And one of the other characters, Carter Mecher, actually is one of the authors of the U.S. pandemic plan that was written during the Bush administration, and, in the course of his work, developed a kind of preternatural ability to track pandemic disease, to anticipate it.

And both of these characters by kind of late January, mid/late-January, knew what we were dealing with. They knew the severity and they knew the transmissibility. And they knew what was coming, and had some trouble getting people to listen to them.

William Brangham: Yes, there are all of these remarkable scenes in the book where these people, through these different back channels, trying to convince members of the CDC or HHS or the White House COVID Task Force to act.

What is your sense, what is their sense of why that message didn't get through?

Michael Lewis: Or, for that matter, the state of California, that Charity Dean, who is working for it, is forbidden from using the word pandemic in January and February.

And I think there's a couple of things going on. One is that it's the nature of the threat, that it's an invisible threat. And until you actually kind of see it sickening people around you, you don't believe it. You know, it's a kind of theoretical thing.

And the problem is, as they all point out, with this particular threat, you have to be almost clairvoyant, because, by the time you see the illness, you're way behind the disease.

The other part of it is, I think, just generally, that just the tools, our government tools that we have to manage existential risks have been allowed to corrode, that we are -- that we have become kind of complacent, and that -- so that when you have a sense that your tools might not work, maybe you're a little slower to use them.

William Brangham: The CDC, in particular, comes under a good deal of criticism in this book.

What is your sense? What is the main assessment of how the CDC stumbled in this pandemic?

Michael Lewis: You know, and it's not my criticism. You just follow these characters in the story.

When there's a risk of being wrong, the CDC stands back, doesn't engage in the battle. And the problem is, it is a battle. And the decisions that get made in the course of disease are ones that happen under conditions of uncertainty, if they're going to be effective.

And the institution has been politicized. It's kind of a little (AUDIO GAP) to the point where Charity Dean, when she's a Santa Barbara County local health official, bans them from her investigations. It slows her down.

But I think the bigger message is how we manage ourselves, that we have allowed that institution to drift over the course of a couple of generations from a really well-run, proud institution filled with public servants and run by public servants to one that that's managed at the top by political appointees who are there for short periods of time and who are on a very short leash from the political process.

And the way we punish people for being wrong, even if the process that got them to the decision is right, has led us to a situation where the servant, the people at the top are terrified of being wrong.

William Brangham: The characters in your book clearly do believe that, if some of their warnings and their actions had been heeded, that this pandemic would have looked very different for the United States.

I wonder, though, do you think that American society, writ large, would have accepted some of their recommendations, because some of them are fairly extreme and severe? Do you think they could have implemented what they wanted to do, if they'd been given the power to do so?

Michael Lewis: So, this is a great question.

And it's the question is, is the society willing to be led and unified? Because that's what would have been required. And it's hard to know, right? My feeling is that it was, yes, possible. And the reason I think it was possible is, after -- if it had been led properly, it would have only taken six weeks or so before the country saw, oh, my God, we dodged that bullet.

Now, even if that's not true, even if even, if for strange, bizarre cultural reasons, we were incapable of containing the virus, if we had just mitigated it better, if we had just been as good as the average G7 country, there'd be 200,000 Americans alive today that are not.

So, that's the sin. It's sort of like, all right, maybe it wasn't possible to do what Australia did and really stamp it out and control it. Maybe that's not possible for us, but it was possible to do a lot better. And we did not do it. We didn't do ourselves proud here. And it really should be a gut-check moment for the culture.

William Brangham: Do you think, when this is all said and done, that we will heed some of the lessons of the missteps that we made, or do you think that we will be so eager to put this behind us, that we will put those lessons behind us, too?

Michael Lewis: I think the trauma that the society has suffered is enough that people will have had enough.

I'm very hopeful. I think that we're sort of like a really talented team that has had a really crappy season. And the question is, like, why? It isn't the talent of the players. We have the capacity. If we didn't have the capacity, I'd say, hmm, maybe we're in trouble the next time.

But I do think that, like, no one wants to relive this, and certainly no one wants to relive this maybe worse. You replay this with it killing children or being more lethal, nobody wants that. And so I think that it will be messy, because we're a polarized country and people want to -- like a losing team, people want to point fingers, rather than fix the problem.

But I think, at bottom, America doesn't want to lose. I think, at bottom, we want to win. And I think we will just figure -- we're going to figure out a way to do it.

William Brangham: All right, the book is called "The Premonition: A Pandemic Story."

Michael Lewis, always great to see you. Thank you very much.

Michael Lewis: Thanks for having me.

Judy Woodruff: This kind of journalism matters so much.

Thank you, Michael Lewis, and thank you, William.

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