When will the pandemic end? 26 science writers and communicators respond

Wordcloud of the survey’s responses, made by Betsy Ladyzhets.

In July 2020, I started the COVID-19 Data Dispatch. Inspired in part by a desire to express my thoughts on the challenges of pandemic tracking and in part by a desire to be useful for my friends and colleagues who were less plugged into COVID-19 news, the project grew from a newsletter to a full-fledged publication with its own website, resources, and membership program.

Within months of my starting the publication, though, people started asking me about its end. What would I do when COVID-19 was “over”? I never knew how to answer. While there may be benchmarks that public health experts can use to declare the pandemic at an end, this end feels more complex for science writers like myself who have been intensely covering the COVID-19 crisis.

The questions reached a fever pitch this spring as millions of Americans got vaccinated and reopenings became inevitable. So, I did what I often do when I face a challenge in my work: I reached out to my community.

Working with The Open Notebook, I surveyed 26 other COVID-19 reporters and communicators. I asked when they thought the pandemic might come to an end, as well as how they would take lessons from the past year into the “post-COVID” stages of their careers.

Many of the writers who responded took that first question literally. They provided vaccination thresholds (60 percent, 70 percent), positivity rate thresholds (1 percent, 2 percent), and other metrics. “When there is a sustained period with no or little COVID-19 related fatalities globally,” wrote The City’s Ann Choi.

Others took the question in more complicated and nuanced directions. These writers redirected the question back at me—noting that even when the world meets numeric thresholds, millions will remain vulnerable.

For example, freelance journalist Roxanne Khamsi wrote, “We’re still living in an HIV pandemic.” The Atlantic’s Ed Yong said, “I’ve come to think that the question, ‘When will the pandemic end?’ isn’t very useful, and it’s more salient to ask, ‘For whom is the pandemic still ongoing?’” Other writers pointed to immunocompromised people for whom the vaccines may not be effective, long-haulers still suffering from symptoms, and the inequities between the U.S. and the many nations with little access to vaccines.

As a science writer covering public health, I feel duty-bound to think of the most vulnerable; many of the writers who responded to my survey echoed that sentiment. Even when the majority of the U.S. is vaccinated, I still intend to cover the communities that face barriers to getting their shots, the immunocompromised patients for whom the shots may not work, and the countries where shots are still not available at all. I’m inspired by the boundless curiosity and compassion of other writers who continue this work, too.

In addition to asking about the end of the pandemic itself, I asked what lessons these writers would take into their future reporting. Their answers fit a similar theme, compassion and curiosity. Some wrote that science writing must intersect more with non-science fields: “Every beat is deeply intersectional, and it’s time to see newsrooms that reflect that,” said U.S. News reporter Chelsea Cirruzzo. Climate coverage may be one example of this trend; climate reporters like HEATED’s Emily Atkin are calling for more collaboration between science and non-science journalists writing about this crisis.

Other survey responses discussed the importance of communicating uncertainty, challenging established scientific norms, and holding accountable the institutions that fail to protect the vulnerable. “Assume nothing, question everything and everyone,” wrote The New York Times’s Apoorva Mandavilli.

When will the pandemic end? It won’t be when the world sees its last COVID-19 case, because that could be centuries from now. Maybe it will be, as Berlin-based freelancer Hristio Boytchev wrote, “When the incidence numbers disappear from the homepages of major news media.”

Even if incidence numbers disappear from homepages, though, I know that science sections, health sections, and independent publications like mine will keep the coverage going for a long time yet.

To read the full responses from each science writer, head over to The Open Notebook’s website.

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