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Michael Lewis on why America's public health institutions struggled to respond to COVID-19 pandemic

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Author Michael Lewis joined "CBS This Morning" to discuss his new book "The Premonition: A Pandemic Story," an in-depth look at why America's public health institutions struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what lessons should be learned before the next one.

Video Transcript

- Michael Lewis is the New York Times' best selling author of iconic books like the Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blindside. His new book, The Premonition-- A Pandemic Story, explores why the US struggles to respond to the coronavirus, despite being considered the best prepared country. The book highlights some of the public health experts who fought for years to get us ready for a crisis exactly like this one. Michael Lewis joins us now.

Michael, good morning to you. You've described this book as a kind of superhero story where the superheroes seem to lose. What do you mean by that?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, you have these characters who had prepared for, in some cases, for their entire lives for this moment, and who saw it coming. And I don't mean kind of in an abstract way, but like, identified it in January exactly what was happening in Wuhan, and who were like, a step away from the levers of power that would have enabled them to really take control [INAUDIBLE].

And they were fighting inside of a system that was kind of blocking them every way. And the lengths they go to sort of save the country from itself, and they do save lives, but it's sort of like you can't believe people are doing this. You can't believe that we don't appreciate what they're doing.

- So they do save lives, but not as many lives as would have been saved if the system leapt into action. As you point out at the very beginning of the book, we were ranked as the most prepared country in the world for an event exactly like this one, and yet we have a disproportionately high number of people dead and dying still to this day. If people saw it, why were they unable to convince those in power to do something sooner?

MICHAEL LEWIS: You know, it's remarkable that we were judged to have the resources to deal with a pandemic-- greater resources than anybody else. And that we had slightly more than 4% of the world's population and more than 20% of the world's deaths. And I think the answer is that this particular threat, I mean, for the first place, if you back away from it, and I think we've let corrode the government sort of risk management function. We have all these institutions that are there to manage these kind of risks and we've not cared for them. We let them fall into disrepair.

And then added to that, the Trump Administration didn't have a particularly interest in managing them in the first place and didn't really get their minds around them. But beyond that, I mean, with a threat like this, almost requires an extraordinary trust in government because you need to take action before, you know, when the sky is blue. You're dealing with an invisible enemy that replicates exponentially. And by the time you see you're in a mess, by the time you see people you know, sick and dying, the virus is overrun. You've lost your chance to control it. And that was the period, sort of January to like, late March, where our response, you know, it required us to sort of have a faith in our leadership that we lacked.

- Michael, we like to believe that we have a great health care system in this country, but you basically say it's completely broken. And one of the heroes of your book, Dr. Charity Dean, says the US doesn't really have a public health system. It has 5,000 dots and each one of those dots serves at the will of an elected official. And almost everybody you talk to is also critical of the CDC, who's sort of supposed to be the heartbeat in the response to the pandemic. Why are we so broken?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, there isn't a system, right? I mean, it is 3,000 of these local people on whom the burden falls. And they were given-- and they aren't networked. There isn't like, a lever you pull at the federal level and everybody responds. So you've got to do it by persuasion. So that's one problem. But the second problem is that the absence of cover-- the political cover that the CDC was giving these local people. I mean, to me, one of the amazing sides of this story is the degree of bravery that was required by these local officials. No one knows who they are. No one knows what they do, but when they do it, they infuriate people. And what they're doing is saving lives. And all they required was just a little help from above.

So why is it so broken? I would say broadly, like if I had to put my finger on the first thing, apart from the fact that we haven't ever created a proper system, but that is so broken at the top is that we politicized it. If you go back 30, 40 years, the person who ran the CDC was a career public servant who would run it for a decade or more, who had some protections from being fired, and who had the long term interest of the institution at heart. And it became a presidential appointee during the Reagan years, and the incentives for the person who was there for 18 months to two years, like a presidential appointee, and who is answering very directly to a political boss. It's just different. And it's not that they're venal. It's just that they're more short term, It's a bit like the difference between having you know a renter and a house and a homeowner.

- Yeah. It's a good point. It's a good line, as well, and you write many good lines. And one of the best parts of the 60 Minutes piece on you on Sunday is the opening shot in, what appears to be, I guess, your writing room. The semi-dark space, you've got headphones on. I don't even think there's internet in that. It looks like you're in a bunker.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah, yeah, no, it's pretty primitive.

- All right. That's how it's done, though, write a book as well as you do. Michael Lewis, thank you very much. The book is The Premonition, on sale today wherever you like to buy your books.