I’ve just listened to the first Longform podcast interview with legendary science journalist Ed Yong, which took place in the first weeks of the pandemic in New York, when the honks and rumbles of ordinary traffic had been replaced by the banshee wails of sirens, and temporary morgues were being set up in New York’s Central Park.
Hearing the emotion and fear in the voices of both interviewee and interviewer took me right back to that terrible, terrified time, when everything was so unknown and we desperately sought answers from the daily press conferences and news reports, and from each other.
Listening to Yong speak I am struck about his clear sense of purpose, even in those very early days. It’s a purpose I also felt back then, as a science journalist privileged with the experience and the skills to be able to parse the firehose of scientific information, critically assess it, know who to speak to for comment, and package all that complexity into something understandable, relatable and as accurate as it was possible to be in that scientific, political, and social chaos.
This pandemic has called science journalists to a frontline we never imagined we’d find ourselves on.
It wasn’t a call to bravery and sacrifice as was asked of healthcare workers, or to a singular goal of finding answers and solutions that the scientific community rallied behind.
We were the emergency broadcast, working to cut through the noise and panic and confusion with clear, objective, accurate and relevant information that people needed to make day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour decisions about what to do.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such focus as I had in those first few months of the pandemic. In late March, having been overseas for much of that month and landing back in Australia just days ahead of the border closures, I was tasked with writing almost hourly rolling updates for Australian clinicians at a medical news magazine called The Medical Republic.
My days were a blur of research studies, press releases, press conferences, government announcements, medical organisation announcements, and news reports. The single, overarching question I held in my head was, ‘what do doctors need to know?’.
I wrote those updates for nearly two and a half years. The hourly updates eventually became daily, then three times a week and finally once-weekly. I shifted towards more in-depth news stories and features on Covid and the pandemic. It wasn’t until August 2022 that I realised I needed to have a break from writing about this terrible, tumultuous phenomenon.
It is a privilege to be able to do that, and a choice that those working in hospitals, aged and disability care, schools, shops, transportation and so many other industries don’t have. I count myself very fortunate that I could stop, detach and for nearly six months try to ignore – at least in my professional life – the ongoing slow-moving disaster that we are still dealing with every day.
It’s been three years since the pandemic really began for me professionally and personally. Listening to Ed Yong speak back at the start of 2020 in what feels – and is – another era, another world, I am struck by two things.
The first is just how much trauma we have all experienced in those three years. It has made me think about what effects that trauma is having on us all now as we move into a strange quantum phase where the pandemic is simultaneously rampaging with more viciousness than ever but also largely ignored. We have all been through this era-defining, planet-wide disaster, and now we’re simply expected to go on with life as if nothing has happened.
But I don’t think humans work like that. I think we need to talk this shit through. We need to process those moments in which the existential ground shifted beneath our feet. Storytelling is part of what it means to be human; how we make sense of the world around us and the world inside us. I’ve spent most of this pandemic writing about other people’s stories, and I’m realising that I – we – also need to tell our own stories of those seismic personal events, and work out why and how those moments changed us.
Moments like the impromptu and rushed picnic in the bushes along a dirt road with dear friends, desperate to see and hug each other in the last few hours before a lockdown order came into effect. I remember walking back to our cars after that event feeling a sense of panic and vertigo, like we were all standing on the edge of something huge and yawning and terrifying and yet we were separating from each other rather than huddling together as I ached to do.
Moments like the first time I saw my parents in person after the first lockdowns had lifted and we were allowed to travel interstate. Hugging them, I realised how intense my fear had been that the pandemic might rob me of the chance to say goodbye to them.
The moment when I and my colleagues realised that things in the healthcare community were so grim that even gallows humour wasn’t funny. We couldn’t even make jokes anymore because doctors were dying and they were terrified.
The moment when people started commenting that we might run out of Greek alphabet letters after which to name the variants, and I realised this might never be over.
It certainly isn’t over now, and I can’t imagine what that end even looks like, when we might move into a time when we don’t fear large gatherings in indoor spaces, or worry that our tickly throat might kill our elderly parents or sicken our friends if we see them.
Which brings me to the second thing that struck me, listening to Ed Yong this morning, which is, ‘what now?’
For almost three years this virus has dominated my work as a science journalist. I’m still writing about it, albeit far less frequently. I don’t think that will change as long as there are peaks and troughs of this disease, as long as it keeps killing people at a high rate, and as long as the devastating tail of long Covid is still crippling so many people.
But I feel an inkling of what it must feel like to be a war reporter who has arrived home after a long tour on a frontline somewhere, and has to try to work out how to be a normal journalist again in a normal world.
Except this world isn’t normal. Covid has changed it, and continues to change it, in ways we are only just starting to glimpse.
We still are only at the start of trying to understand the long-term immune consequences of the repeat infections and the increase in the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
The vulnerable in society – the elderly, people with disabilities, those with compromised immune systems – have been condemned as collateral damage we’re willing to accept if it means we don’t have to wear masks on public transport or get vaccinated or adequately fund paid sick leave for everyone.
The industries that have borne the brunt of the pandemic – health and aged care workers, teachers, low-paid insecure workers forced to remain on the frontlines with limited protection – are unsurprisingly finding it hard to attract and keep new staff. Who would want to commit to a job that, when a life-threatening disaster arrived, literally shoved them out the door to face death with only the distant sound of applause in their ears to protect them?
And there are bigger, slower-moving disasters that Covid briefly distracted us from: climate change, the biodiversity crisis, antimicrobial resistance.
So I’m asking myself, ‘what now?’. What have I learned – personally and professionally – from the past three years that I should be applying to what I do now?
As I write this, I don’t know the answer to that question. Hopefully some time soon I will.