Atlantic reporter Ed Yong discusses covering the pandemic, warns of desire for return to ‘normal’

‘Normal created a vulnerable world that was more prone to a pandemic, but less able to cope with it.’

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 2, 2020 – In the last eight months, science journalist Ed Yong has written 19 consecutive stories for The Atlantic about the COVID-19 pandemic – stories that range between 2,000 and 8,000 words chronicling the nation’s failed response to the crisis, the science behind the virus, and the work of scientists to combat it.

But as he watches the United States eclipse 9 million confirmed cases and 220,000 deaths, he questions if the job he’s been doing has been enough, Yong told hundreds of viewers Thursday during the annual Amanpour Lecture, hosted by the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media.

“I constantly feel like the work is inadequate. Even though I have tried as hard as I can and produced work at a pace that I didn’t think I could achieve in March, it still feels like not enough,” Yong said. “The stakes are so high, the number of potential stories so many.”

In a 90-minute discussion streamed live on the Harrington School’s social media platforms, Yong discussed what it’s been like covering the worldwide health crisis and how the U.S. has gotten to this point in the pandemic.

As the U.S. enters its third surge of the virus, more than 70,000 new cases are being diagnosed daily, Yong said. On a day when the U.S. recorded a record 88,500 cases, he noted a silver lining is that doctors have gotten better at treating the virus and those who contract it have better odds of surviving. But, he added, health-care workers still lack sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, are exhausted after months of battling the crisis, and – because outbreaks are occurring nationwide – are unlikely to see an influx of assistance from health-care workers from less-affected states.

“America’s mishandling of COVID-19 is not just to do with Donald Trump, although he is central to it,” Yong said, “but because of the cavalcade of preexisting vulnerabilities that the virus found and exploited.”

Those longstanding vulnerabilities include: systemic racism and segregation that has left people of color disproportionality vulnerable; a health insurance system in which many poor people are without access to adequate health services; a public health system that lacks the workers needed to do effective contact tracing; crowded prisons; understaffed nursing homes; poorly ventilated buildings prime for super-spreader events; and social media platforms geared to spread misinformation faster than it can be debunked.

“Throughout this year, people have longed to go back to ‘normal’ and wondered when that could happen,” Yong said. “But my argument to you is that normal led to all of this. Normal created a vulnerable world that was more prone to a pandemic, but less able to cope with it. And normal will leave us vulnerable to the next pandemic, a crisis that is an inevitable. A matter of when and not if.”

Yong, whose science writing has also appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, Wire, Nature, New Scientist, and Scientific American, says covering the pandemic has been the hardest challenge of his 14-year career.

In March, when he was given the assignment, he said, his editor gave him the “mandate to take the biggest possible swings.” His 19 stories include looks at the U.S. response, the debate over the need for face coverings, how the immune system works, the fact that many survivors battle long-term symptoms after beating the virus, and a look at how the pandemic could play out if President Donald Trump is reelected.

“I’m trying to predict the zeitgeist, to answer big questions that people have almost before they even realize that they have them,” Yong said. “Questions like how the pandemic will end? Why is this all so confusing? Why is what I am seeing in my community different from what I’m seeing in the news? Why do we seem stuck making the same mistakes? How did we come to this?”

In his writing, he said, he’s trying to bring together fragments of information into an understandable picture, connecting the dots between what’s happening now and what has happened already, clearing up misconceptions and trying to prevent future ones. He said he’s received thousands of emails from readers over the course of the pandemic, including those from people affected by long-term health issues from the virus who felt their stories had finally been told, and from those who have used his stories to bridge gaps with friends and family who had dismissed safety precautions.

“I’ve often likened the pandemic to a rising flood or raging torrent, some chaotic body of water that threatens to drown us,” he said earlier in the night. “And I think good journalism can offer … a solid landmass in the middle of all that on which we can stand and observe what is happening without getting swept away by it.”

Through questions from moderator Jason Jaacks, professor of multimedia journalism, students, and URI professors Judith Swift, Sunshine Menezes, and Emily Pechar Diamond, Yong elaborated on numerous tips for journalists covering the pandemic. He stressed that journalists worried about lacking the science expertise to cover the pandemic should “ascend the learning curve through good reporting and by talking to the right experts,” and urged journalists to include women and people of color in their reporting to provide important views that would otherwise be lost.

For student journalists who may be facing the same learning curve while also learning the craft, he offered: “Focus on the quality. Don’t think about what your sources think about a piece. Don’t think about what the professors think about a piece. Make sure that the integrity of the work is solid, that you have covered all your bases and that you’ve done your due diligence. Recognize that a lot of this comes from experience and that you actually need to keep on doing the work and pumping stuff out to be better at it.”

The Christiane Amanpour Lecture Series was endowed in 2008 by Amanpour ’83, Hon. 95, the longtime CNN chief international anchor and global correspondent. To view a video of the Yong lecture, go to the series webpage.