Michal Lewis’ new book “The Premonition” couldn’t be more newsworthy. Through the stories of three individuals who worked in the public health system, Lewis makes plain just how we ended up with a dysfunctional CDC at a time of a global pandemic.
In an interview with Nicolle Wallace of MSNBC (5/12/21) Lewis notes that we should question whether any of our government is best run by political appointees. The CDC went from an institution run by experts to a home for those who needed to be politically rewarded.
Lewis also notes that there are characteristics of our economic system that made us unable to respond adequately to a crisis, in this case the pandemic, but the problems would be there in any crisis.
Lewis notes that the for-profit system is so entrenched in the society that we are unable to avail ourselves of solutions even when they present themselves unless they exist within the for-profit world.
He tells a story of a non-profit testing lab. When the owners of the lab saw that the CDC was not going to be able to adequately test people for COVID, it developed its own test and tried to give it away for free. But, accepting a free testing service was problematic for some. In one case, the agency approached could not use the free testing because its computer system could not accept any entry that had a $0 for the price.
The testing lab went to San Quentin prison and warned them that if no testing was done in such a confined institution, the result was likely to be a disaster. Those in charge initially accepted the testing but then quickly backed out. When asked why, those in charge explained that they already had established contracts with big testing labs and they were afraid that accepting another test would infringe on their contracts or at the very least, make the big testing firms angry.
The testing provided by the big labs was more cumbersome and took more time. The result, prisoners were transferred into the facility with COVID and twenty people died. Twenty people died needlessly because the big labs needed to make money off their monopoly control over testing at San Quentin.
As Lewis points out there are risks in the social environment that only the government can manage. If we hollow out the ability of the state to manage these risks we do so at our own peril. People like Ted Cruz may be able to fly off to another country and stay in a sealed community, but the rest of us can’t.
Lewis also notes that the entire structure of incentives for health care is defective. There are, for example, no incentives for preventive medicine.
Christina Amanpour interviews author Michael Lewis May 6, 2021 about his new book “The Premonition.”
In his book, Michael Lewis followed three characters involved in the public health system and tells their stories. The stories carry lessons for pandemic response in the past and the future.
As Amanpour notes, Lewis had already written about the hollowing out of creative professionals in the ranks of government. This hollowing out left a bureaucracy afraid of creativity and afraid of risk. When COVID hit, the CDC which should have been the leader, was afraid to act.
As Ezra Klein noted in his article about Lewis’ book in the New York Times (May 2021), the CDC was “too passive, too unwilling to act on uncertain information, too afraid of making mistakes, too interested in its public image.”
According to Lewis, the hollowing out of the CDC, the loss of their reputation, happened long before Trump. I was interested to hear this since during the COVID crisis I kept wondering how Trump could eviscerate the CDC so rapidly. Turns out he didn’t.
According to Lewis, by 2012 the CDC had become an academic institution reluctant to take on any action aside from studying problems. It had, according to Lewis, become a “disease observation and reporting” institution, not a disease control center.
Lewis tells the stories of several people involved in the public health system and their experiences dealing with the CDC. One, Charity Dean, was a public health official on the ground, locally. When she tried to get assistance from the CDC for public health problems, she found none. In fact, she found active hostility. When she called on the CDC to help her they actually obstructed her investigations.
Lewis commented that if the three people whose stories he told were asked whether the CDC would act as the battlefield commander in the event of a pandemic, they would have answer no. The Centers for Disease Control had ceased to function to control disease.
It was obvious to some people, people who were actively trying to develop strategies for a future pandemic, that a battlefield commander was going to be needed. But, the CDC wasn’t listening.
As Lewis tells tells the story, after 9/11 and Katrina, George Bush was primed to be concerned about any unexpected threat. Sometime in 2005, he was handed the book “The Great Influenza.” He supposedly read it and asked about the plan for dealing with a future pandemic. The answer was that there wasn’t any.
Surprisingly, the Bush administration acted quickly and within weeks had Congress appropriate money to study the issue and devise a strategy. Lewis notes how this back story illustrates just what can be done quickly when the President focuses on an issue and decides to get something done.
And, also surprisingly, the individuals brought in from various federal agencies were nominated because of their reputation for creative thinking. That in-and-of itself is extraordinary. In a country that spends untold amounts of money creating commissions and investigations filled with dignitaries and political donors, this body was staffed by people who were creative. Go figure.
These folks Bush appointed to the commission, created a testing, tracking and social distancing strategy and convinced the rest of the world that it could be effective. This strategy was designed to decrease mortality during the period between the onset of a pandemic and the development of vaccines.
The kicker was that after convincing a skeptical world that this public health strategy could work, the country that developed it failed to adequately put it into effect when a read pandemic occurred.
Lewis noted that this was because the strategy was widely considered to be a theoretical idea not an implementable public health measure. Similarly, a pandemic was considered to be a theoretical threat, not a real possibility.
But, people on the ground, people like Charity Dean, one of the people in Lewis’ book, were looking at factors like the increasing worldwide transmission of viruses from animals to humans. What they were looking at wasn’t a theoretical possibility. When they looked at the evidence, the outbreak of a dangerous pandemic was a matter of when not if.
But, as Charity Dean told Lewis, people like her felt like Moses, building the ark. Everyone around them accused them of lunacy. So, there were people who knew a dangerous pandemic was coming. When Trump went on national TV and claimed that the COVID virus outbreak was a total shock to the world, he was (as usual) lying.
By 2011 people like Charity Dean, people on the local level of public health, knew not only that a pandemic was coming, but that the country was unprepared. The population, however, (as usual) was being told that we were the most prepared country in the world.
Studies ranking preparedness, listed the U.K. an the U.S. as the most prepared countries in the world. They were wrong. They made people feel good. They made people complacent, but they were wrong.
As Lewis noted, the U.S. with 4% of population would up with 20% of the deaths. Somehow, sometime, Americans are going to have to stop creating and repeating and believing their own propaganda.
Crisis response is not about having the most resources or the most labs or the most prestigious boards at the CDC. Lewis detailed some of the problems that are part of the structure of the society, features that make crisis response (whether it’s to a war or a pandemic) almost impossible.
Lewis and doctors at the WHO, talked about the endemic fear of failure. As one of the doctors at the WHO put it, in March of 2020, fear of failure, fear of making a mistake has become paralyzing. “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.”
Lewis noted that the culture has been primed to punish viciously crimes of commission, but to forget crimes of omission. It doesn’t take much to predict which crimes will be the most prevalent.
Many of the researchers who understood and warned about the coming pandemic believe that this is not the serious pandemic they are concerned about. They believe that this is only a dry run. The real pandemic has yet to happen. We all need to put that in our pipes and smoke.
TOMORROW: How the For-Profit Health Care System Crippled the pandemic Response.
As the corporate media becomes more and more useless, we must turn to other sources.
Podcast: America’s Lawyer, Mike Papantonio
April 1, 2020 Episode: The risks to meat packing employees of the mandated openings; the complicity of the Democrats in the class rip-off of the stimulus bill; Schumer and fast-tracking judicial appointments; claims of Tara Reade; lawsuits against big banks for discriminating against small businesses; insurance companies who refuse to pay claims because of the pandemic.
DNC Lawyers Argue DNC Has Right to Pick Candidates in Back Rooms
Late February, after the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, warned of the coming pandemic, Mike Pance was put in charge of the White House Coronavirus, and the CDC started declining interviews. Federal employees were limited in what they could say publicly. The NYT reported that federal health officials were required to coordinate their statements with Pence’s office. Several lawsuits and complaints and lawsuits have been filed.
MSNBC public editor: Why pundits and journalists insist on false balance.
There is an illusion the media feels obliged to preserve, even more than the illusion of objectivity. “What broadcast media is really selling—literally selling, to its advertisers and to its viewers—is the illusion of stability and certainty in American life, as well as its own role as a wise, trustworthy leader within that system.”
“National news organizations like MSNBC cannot operate effectively outside the assumption of calm, professional equanimity. Their real stock-in-trade is the impression, the conviction, that they know what is going on in the world; that is the reason viewers tune in and the basis of every ad buy. Normality. Stability, a world that is comprehensible and comprehended.”
Trump and the Republicans are working to establish a Christo-fascist one party authoritarian state. The corporate media refuses to take this situation seriously, acting as if Trump’s personal disdain of science is just that, some kind of personal peccadillo. It’s not. The Republican party has worked for decades to erode public confidence in science and the scientific method.
Crucial people in the Trump administration and the Republican party think they have a religious mission to subvert democracy in this country. Bill Barr (who numerous pundits on MSNBC assured us was an institutionalist) is just one example. These people detest science because science has rules, can demonstrate facts that contradict religious belief. These are people who do not want there to be any objective reality outside their own authoritarian determination of truth. Science is a threat.
The Republican Party has spent decades fighting against science. The science of climate change is a good example. They must discredit science to discredit what is now agreed-upon scientific fact – the planet is warming, disastrously, and it is the effect of man-made (and therefore correctable) behavior. But, acknowledging the reality of climate change means interfering with profits from fossil fuels. The Republicans would rather savage the planet rather than cost the 1% profits.
As Malcolm Nance pointed out this week in an interview, these people are a lot like terrorist fanatics, they think they are protected by God from the effects of their behavior. These folks think they can pursue profits and destroy the planet and they will not be affected.
As just one illustration of this thinking, last week there was video of people coming out of a religious service where people congregated regardless of the Coronavirus. One woman stopped to talk to the reporter, and said: I’ve been washed by the blood of Jesus. What she is saying is that she won’t be affected by the Coronavirus because God is protecting her.
This is dangerous thinking. Extremely dangerous thinking. And, it prevades an entire political party in this country. These are not just a few isolated people.
Trump’s administration is packing the scientific agencies like the CDC with appointees who have no respect for, and positive suspicion of science. Robert Redfield is one example. Redfield has essentially been given a pass by the corporate media.
The following are excerpts from an article about Redfield that took 5 seconds to find on the internet.
Redfield’s “…nomination was considered controversial, and was opposed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which cited Redfield’s lack of experience administering a public health agency, his history of scientific misconduct, and his religious advocacy in response to a public health crisis. Earlier reporting refers to his advocacy of a religious agenda in response to the AIDS crisis.”
In a statement by the President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Dr. Peter Lurie (published (3/21/18), the CSPI deemed the appointment of Redfield “disastrous” for at least three reasons. 1) Redfield had no experience running a public health agency and has no relationship with state and local public health officials. 2) Redfield had been “credibly accused of scientific misconduct for exaggerating the benefits of a putative HIV vaccine.” Redfield was investigated for this by the military. 3) Redfield had supported a variety of policies related to HIV/AIDS that “are anathema to the great majority of public health professionals: mandatory HIV testing, reporting of positive HIV results to public health without the patient’s consent and quarantining of HIV positive individuals in the military.”
Redfield in this public statement was called “a sloppy scientist with a long history of scientific misconduct and an extreme religious agenda.”
Further excerpts from an article in Mother Jones: Choma, Russ (3/7/2020) “Trump’s CDC director has a history of controversial…”
Redfield “… also has a long history of being a close ally to conservative politicians and their pet theories on HIV and AIDS.”
He advocated investigating the sexual histories of those who tested HIV positive.
Redfield advocated similar ideas outside of the military, aligning himself with a conservative Christian group called Americans for a Sound HIV/AIDS Policy (ASAP) which supported similar steps in the general public (mandatory testing and quarantines) to control the spread of the virus. According to Foreign Policy, in the introduction of a book by ASAP’s founder, Redfield rejected the medical norms for handling the epidemic and called for a more faith-based approach:
“It is time to reject the temptation of denial of the AIDS/HIV crisis; to reject false prophets who preach the quick-fix strategies of condoms and free needles; to reject those who preach prejudice; and to reject those who try to replace God as judge. The time has come for the Christian community—members and leaders alike—to confront the epidemic,” Redfield wrote.
Redfield named the breakdown of family values and increasing number of single-parent households as key factors responsible for the spread of AIDS.
“In the 1990s, Redfield endorsed an unproven HIV vaccine as a huge breakthrough. It wasn’t, and Redfield was investigated for scientific misconduct for his role in continuing to push the vaccine. (He was later cleared of accusations of misconduct.) He also publicly lobbied for legislation sponsored by a conservative member of Congress that would force medical workers to get tested for HIV and AIDS and lose their licenses to practice if they were infected. More recently, in the early 2000s, Redfield remained adamant that the best way to contain the AIDS epidemic in Africa was to encourage abstinence, monogamy, and the use of condoms only as a last resort.”
Redfield was not the Trump administration’s first choice for CDC director; she resigned after she was found to have traded tobacco stocks while running the CDC. Despite loud calls from CDC watchdogs like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which accused Redfield of having a bad record “and an extreme religious agenda,” Redfield was appointed in 2018.
Redfield has enabled Trump’s politicization of the government’s response.
And, Deborah Brix has been a close associate of Redfield’s.
According to information reported by Wikipedia:
“Redfield continued studies of the…vaccine; the results of his 27-author phase II clinical trial were published in the Journal of Infectious Disease in 2000, with Deborah L. Birx as lead author. Redfield’s multi-site study, a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, laid the groundwork for future vaccine development and provided a better understanding of the biologic basis of HIV infection and its interaction with the host immune system. The work did not, however, result in an effective vaccine.
“The 1993 investigation did say that Redfield had an “inappropriate” close relationship with the non-governmental group “Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy” (ASAP), which promoted the gp160 vaccine. The group was founded by evangelical Christians that worked to contain the HIV/AIDS outbreak by advocating for abstinence before marriage, rather than passing out condoms — a view Redfield says he’s since changed.
Redfield served on the board of ASAP, which gay groups criticized for anti-gay, conservative Christian policies, such as abstinence-only prevention. Redfield also authored the foreword to the book co-written by ASAP leader W. Shepard Smith, “Christians in the Age of AIDS” which discouraged the distribution of sterile needles to drug users as well as condom use calling them “false prophets.” The book described AIDS as “God’s judgment” against homosexuals. At the time of his nomination to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Redfield maintained close ties with anti-gay and anti-HIV activists, although he has publicly supported the use of condoms and denied ever promoting abstinence-only interventions. However, in the 2000s, Redfield was a prominent advocate for the ABCs of AIDS doctrine which promoted abstinence primarily and condoms only a last resort.
These people are dangerous, driven by religious fanaticism, and in charge of government agencies.
A discussion of politics, law, justice, and crime.