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.”
When the first Covid cases emerge in Wuhan, Mecher begins trading emails with his old comrades (nicknamed the Wolverines, after the scrappy American teenagers fighting off a Soviet invasion in the ’80s flick “Red Dawn”). Using back-of-the-envelope math — “redneck epidemiology,” Mecher calls it — the Wolverines realize that there are thousands more cases in China than acknowledged. Yet when the first American case is confirmed, Trump dismisses the danger, saying “It’s one person” and “We have it under control.” By then, the Wolverine email list includes people from all around the government who are supposed to be executing the United States’ pandemic response. But in those critical early weeks, C.D.C. officials repeatedly downplayed Covid. They wanted more data. They didn’t want to act until the danger was clear.
Some of this story has been told before, including in this newspaper. But Lewis brings a welcome gimlet eye to the Trump era, when government officials abused by Trump were instinctively deified by liberal Twitter and cable TV. When a C.D.C. official named Nancy Messonnier defied Trump and announced, last February, that the spread of the disease was inevitable, “people were soon saying how brave Messonnier had been to say that the virus could not be stopped.” The reality, Lewis argues, is that the C.D.C. did not even try.
But the lessons of the “The Premonition” apply to more than just the C.D.C. — they tell us why government bureaucracies fail. The problem wasn’t just in Washington, or with Trump. The bureaucratic disease of under-reaction, Lewis argues, runs deep in America’s fragmented, underfunded health system. After Charity Dean scrawled her prophecy in December 2019, the Covid virus broke out in Wuhan. Scanning Twitter and Chinese websites, Dean formed a picture of impending doom. She brought her urgent concerns to her new boss at California’s Department of Public Health, Sonia Angell, a former C.D.C. official who had little experience in infectious disease but a glittering résumé “righting racial injustice in health care,” as Lewis puts it.
According to Dean, Angell choked. She banned Dean from using the word “pandemic,” cut her out of meetings and yelled at her when Dean deliberately left a paper trail about the coming disaster. Angell insisted on deferring to the paralyzed C.D.C., where officials had by then flipped from claiming the virus was no big risk to insisting nothing could be done to stop it. (Angell would resign months later, her departure publicly attributed to a Covid-testing data screw-up.) Only with the help of a couple of Silicon Valley executives — who almost instantly realized Dean was right — did Dean persuade California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, to issue a stay-at-home order.
Not quickly enough. The aliens had landed. The virus was already among us. By the time it was politically convenient to act, the pandemic was already too late to stop.