Michael Lewis is the best non-fiction writer of the past 30 years. Not only does he write a book every other year, not only do these books sell by the millions, not only are these turned into blockbuster movies starring Brad Pitt and Christian Bale, the books achieve something far more important – they take topics which are obscure and complex and turn them into absorbing, understandable narratives for a non-expert audience. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of hard work to write books ranging from Finance to Psychology to Sports and now on Science which makes complex new ideas accessible to ordinary Joes like us. In his latest book, on how the US medical establishment blundered through the Covid-19 crisis, Lewis has done it again. Here is the Guardian describes “Premonition”:
“…Lewis described the book, which he was then still working on, as “a superhero story where the superheroes seem to lose the war”. …Lewis’s main subjects are a group of extraordinarily dedicated, resourceful and conscientious people who understand how drastically underprepared America is for a viral pandemic. They know what needs to be done to redress the situation, but are up against the fragmented dysfunction of the federal government and the malicious indifference of the Trump White House.
Lewis is …cornily earnest about what he refers to at one point as this “rogue group of patriots working behind the scenes to save the country”. One such rogue is Charity Dean, a deputy director of California’s Department of Public Health, who becomes, in the days of Covid’s first emergence, a kind of underdog heroine in the fight to get the federal authorities to take the threat seriously…
If this is a superhero story, it’s one that lacks a supervillain. Though you might expect a book by Lewis about the US government’s grotesque mishandling of the pandemic to be a late entry into the Big Trump Book canon, the 45th president is a mercifully peripheral presence in its pages.…Lewis’s approach here is to find a small number of unheralded individuals working within vast systems, and use them to portray the workings (or, in this case, not-workings) of those systems. The malevolent force in ‘The Premonition’ is institutional malaise. Lewis’s underlying argument here, though, is hardly compatible with the conservative “big government doesn’t work” boilerplate, which posits centralisation as the root of all societal evil. Rather, he portrays a system that is both incredibly vast and insufficiently centralised. “There’s no one driving the bus,” as Joe DeRisi, one of Lewis’s main subjects, puts it. DeRisi, a biochemist who developed an extremely useful technology for rapid viral testing, spends much of the book banging his head against institutional brick walls in an attempt to get his innovation adopted as part of a wider campaign against Covid…
It is the CDC – the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – that emerges as the main antagonist. As the country’s public health agency, the CDC is, as its name suggests, technically responsible for preventing the spread of disease. But the book presents a damning portrayal of an organisation in which no one is willing to risk getting fired by making a wrong move, and in which an institutional abundance of caution amounts to a form of recklessness. The fact that the director of the organisation is appointed by, and can be fired by, the president also means it’s a role that tends to go to yes-men.”
The New York Times review of the book brings out a point which has great relevance for investors as well – the ability of a few leaders (too few as it turns out) to see risks more clearly than other people can: “We meet Carter Mecher, a doctor and an autodidact working at the Department of Veterans Affairs who has a knack for seeing how systems fail. Drafted by the George W. Bush administration to help develop the United States’ first real pandemic response plan, Mecher learns that, as the C.D.C. saw things, there was little the country could do in a pandemic but isolate the sick and wait for a vaccine…
The central lesson of his book is that beating a pandemic means acting before the danger is clear — a mind-set that politicians and bureaucracies are terrible at embracing. It is Mecher and his colleagues on the Bush task force who rediscover the idea of social distancing and, after studying the 1918 flu pandemic, draft a plan to shut down schools and encourage Americans to work from home in the case of a pandemic…
One big problem with pandemics, Lewis observes, is that human brains — and, by extension, human bureaucracies — are simply not wired to grasp exponential growth. If you take a penny and double it every day for 30 days, you’d end up with $5 million. “The same mental glitch that leads people to not realize the power of compound interest,” Lewis writes, “blinds them to the importance of intervening before a pathogen explodes.””
From the analogies he uses, to the characters he sketches out to construct an interesting narrative to his storytelling skills, we read Michael Lewis for the same reason we watch Virat Kohli bat – we know we cannot perform at that level but we can appreciate greatness when we see it.

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