Michael Lewis is an author I enjoy, and his unique storytelling around risk is something I’ve really come to appreciate. So his new book about the bureaucratic context of America’s pandemic failure was something I had to grab immediately. Finishing this book, I was seeing red.
The Premonition follows the story of a number of different individuals across healthcare and epidemiology and the build-up towards the current pandemic over the past twenty-ish years. Each person has their own story tied to the inevitability of a pandemic: from the relentless Dr. Charity Dean, who helped form the basis of California’s response, to the rogue team styles of Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett, who created the pandemic response plan during the Bush administration. The piece that ties it all together is a shared premonition around a pandemic event, and how that awareness serves to incite action and drive frustration.
This frustration is what made me see red. Throughout this narrative, Lewis is continuously returning to a single, monolithic bugbear: The CDC — Center for Disease Control (Side note on this: where I am in Denmark, it seems as though many here believe that the CDC is an international organization, instead of the US federal institution which it is).
With some experience in federal government myself, via the US Digital Service (Todd Park and DJ Patil, two of USDS’ founding members make substantial appearances as an aside), this story feels a bit too familiar. Individual civil servants with a drive to do good in the public sector and the knowledge and awareness to have impact systematically undermined by an institution that sees such foresight and preparedness as unnecessary, politically inexpedient, or simply disruptive. Beaten down, their work becomes marginalized, their vision diluted, and their contribution as innovative thinkers becomes undermined.
This is a common story in any institution, but what The Premonition describes is how the CDC fundamentally and inexcusably failed at its core mission, which nominally is to manage such events. We’ve ALL (including internationally) looked to the CDC for guidance during the pandemic with the understanding that they knew what to do, but instead, what The Premonition describes is an institution hell-bent on not rocking the boat — an impulse that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
I’d encourage everyone to read The Premonition. It’s a maddening, heart-wrenching, deeply personal story of systematic failure at the highest levels — but a story that I hope ignites a drive towards positive change.