Q&A with Ed Yong: “It’s like staring into the abyss, and the abyss is shouting LOL HOAX into your mentions.”
This week’s interview is with none other than The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, whose definitive writing on the pandemic, including his most recent piece COVID-19's Third Surge Is Breaking Health-Care Workers, has consistently been a clear-eyed port in the storm of this year’s news cycle.
We talked about what the past eight months of nonstop COVID coverage have been like for him, professionally and personally, plus what’s kept his spirits up through it all.
You were supposed to start this year off on book leave, but you ended it in March to cover the coronavirus pandemic. How has the work of writing about COVID changed for you over the past eight months?
In many ways, the challenge remains the same: Help people make sense of a problem that is too big to fully comprehend. The pandemic is an omnicrisis that has touched and uprooted every aspect of our society. It continually threatens to sweep us away in a deluge of information and misinformation.
Since the spring, I’ve tried to do the kind of journalism that offers a high, safe platform amid that torrent, allowing people to see what is swirling around them without drowning in it. I’ve tried to pre-empt the zeitgeist by addressing questions people maybe didn’t even know they were all asking. When is this going to end? Why is this so confusing? Why is my experience different from what I see on the news?
The problem is that a lot of the pandemic is circular. But because it has dragged on for so long, there’s an expectation that we need to try something new. “So what now?” is a sentiment I’ve heard from readers, colleagues, and friends. Journalists are obviously constantly hunting for new angles.
But the most important angles are the old ones. Yes, some of the science of COVID-19 has evolved, but in the main, we keep making the same intuitive errors, and we keep failing to implement the same old playbook. The challenge, then, is to find new ways of describing the same things to an audience that has become increasingly fatigued, at a time when I, myself, am intensely fatigued, too.
I actually wrote a whole piece about the pandemic spiral, but now what? I’ve joked about republishing every piece since March on a weekly rotation with increasingly annoyed headlines like Okay But Seriously This Time and What The Hell Did I Just Say? And I’m only kind of joking.
In your Longform interview in April, you talked about feeling a sense of duty to be constantly plugged in on "the front lines" to absorb and make sense of all the available info. Does that mindset still work for you, now that we’re in November? Has there been a point where you've felt like, okay, I need to step back, it's just too much?
I’ve been trying to cut out military and fighting metaphors, so I’d walk back the front lines bit, but the sentiment is the same. I’m a science reporter who has covered pandemics with a platform at a national magazine. I do think I have a duty to help people make sense of this moment. To do that, I have to make sense of it for myself, and to do that, I have to be constantly immersed in the news. Omnicrisis, y’know? It’s too big to just glance at now and then. I don’t get to look away.
I’m profoundly grateful to be of service during this time but it is brutal — relentlessly so. It’s like being constantly gaslit by everyone from some rando on Twitter to the President of the United States. It’s like slaloming between absurdity and tragedy, when the entire slope is covered in fog, and the finish line keeps moving away. It’s like staring into the abyss, and the abyss is shouting “LOL HOAX” into your mentions.
I do think part of the job involves bearing witness to suffering, but it’s not easy. And when nothing changes, it’s hard to not wonder if the work meant anything. Has there been a point where I’ve felt like I need to step back? God, all the time. But I just don’t think I can right now. I took a week off in late July and fully unplugged, which really helped. I tried taking another week in late September, and in the middle of it, Trump got COVID-19.
The gravitational pull that your coverage on COVID has exerted on the national conversation — especially in those sweeping pieces like How The Pandemic Will End and Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die — is undeniable. Has the response to your work this year surprised you?
I’ve tried to produce the best work I could manage, but I never imagined these pieces would resonate in the way they have. I came into journalism through a very sideways route — a scarred veteran of the “Can Bloggers Be Journalists?” wars of the late 2000s. I’ve always sort of seen myself as this nerdy outsider who writes about quirky nature stuff.
And now? “How The Pandemic Will End” is one of the most-read Atlantic articles of all time. I’ve had thousands of kind emails from readers. People I’ve looked up to for years are suddenly in my mentions. I am British, and so am constitutionally predisposed to find success mortifying, so I don’t really know what to make of it.
At the same time, I feel like I can’t ignore the bigger platform. There’s an obvious responsibility to make sure the work is accurate, with so many more eyes upon it. And there’s also a huge social responsibility, too. I still feel like this anxious noob journalist with impostor syndrome, but I also know that my words carry way more weight than they once did, and I have a newly massive opportunity to promote other people, lead by example, and do a lot of other good. These are strange things to have to reconcile.
I’ve said to some friends that it’s like “Ed Yong” has become a character in this season of Pandemic, whom I only occasionally play and whom I now have to live up to. I don’t get retweeted by Ellen Pompeo, but Ed Yong the character on Pandemic apparently does and good luck to that guy and his weird life. [editor’s note: I asked Ed if he watches Grey’s Anatomy. He does not, unfortunately.]
Also, frankly, I’ve seen the world exalt enough mediocre assholes to know that renown is not synonymous (or even vaguely correlated) with quality. Success always comes down to luck and privilege as much as hard work or talent, and I’ve had a lot of advantages during this pandemic that many other journalists haven’t, including job security, an incredible partner, no childcare duties, and a specific mandate from The Atlantic to take big swings.
Hence that responsibility to do right by the community. I’m grateful for the positive response but am also trying not to read much into it. I just want to do good work. And there are so many other people also doing phenomenal work.
I don't want to be glib and be like, well ~ what are we thankful for ~ this year, all things considering, but is there anything about our national response to COVID that has surprised you in a positive way?
The single most important thing we have learned about COVID-19 is that it can be controlled. It is not an unstoppable super-pathogen. We know how to deal with it—masks, physical-distancing, avoiding prolonged indoor contact, testing, contact-tracing, options for safe quarantines, better ventilation, social interventions like paid sick leave. It should be possible to control it.
The scientific community pulled off amazing things (with caveats, and I’ll get to that in an upcoming piece), and we’ll probably have a vaccine soon, in record time. The American public, despite the stereotypes of rugged individualism, proved surprisingly willing to take up unfamiliar measures for the collective good, like masks and physical-distancing.
That same public elected a president who will actually try to bring the pandemic under control (but perhaps by smaller margins that you might expect given how badly the other guy botched everything). These things aren’t enough, but they’re not nothing, and we should be thankful for them.
Finally, what are your plans for the holidays? Will you be taking any time off (and does it feel guilty to do so?)?
I’ll mostly be working, at least until Christmas, but I’m hoping to get back to book leave in the New Year. And yes, I feel an enormous sense of guilt around even contemplating that because, well, the pandemic is not going away and the winter is going to be dark as fuck. But also, my mental health is in tatters, and I just can’t keep doing this forever.
That’s really depressing, isn’t it? Let me end on a happy note (and, in the process, completely out myself as a wife guy). Liz Neeley has been my rock this year. “Supportive” doesn’t even begin to describe it. She works in science communication, used to lead a storytelling nonprofit, and founded her own new company in the middle of all of this. Her intellect and ideas suffuse my writing, and her unerring compassion and moral clarity are my guideposts.
We both used to travel a lot more but because of the pandemic, we spend every day together. We go on daily walks, and I learn from her on every one. I get to listen to her take calls and be a boss. I’m more thankful for her than I can express, and that’s what I’m going to focus on over the holidays.