As the world is roiled by the ongoing impacts of Covid-19, science writers are faced with the challenging task of helping the public make sense of a global crisis unlike any in recent history. While some writers toil to report breaking news, interpret new data, and explain the science of the virus, others are working to illuminate the underlying social and political context of the pandemic.
Former Knight Science Journalism Fellow Annalee Newitz (’03) falls into the latter camp. From offering early advice on prepping for the pandemic to analyzing formative disasters in humanity’s more distant past, Newitz, an opinion contributor for The New York Times, has sought to help readers feel more prepared and empowered. In a recent interview, Newitz spoke with me about the dangers of normalizing disaster (and why we should normalize survival instead), what we can learn from crises of the past, and how this pandemic could help writers talk about another looming global threat — climate change. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Rachel Fritts: You wrote the article “How to be a smart coronavirus prepper” for your New York Times column back in February. What inspired you to write that particular piece?
Annalee Newitz: That particular article really came out of personal observations, more than anything else. Like a lot of science journalists, I was following the outbreak in China, and it was very obvious that it was going to be coming here and that things were going to be really, really different. Culture was going to be radically transformed. I really wanted to record that moment in time — the moment when we went from total innocence and ignorance to needing to prepare for something really transformative and scary.
I guess you’d say I wanted to use that column to kind of gently ease people into preparing for a big disaster by encouraging people to think about the small things they could do to be ready, because usually when we think of disaster, we imagine an action movie where everything is exploding and there’s nothing you can do. And the only thing you can do is retreat to a bunker or something — like something beyond our capabilities. So, I wanted to make it personal, and to give people a window on like how they could actually do small things to make it easier on themselves and their friends and families. I guess you’d say the urge to write that piece came less from a sense of wanting to teach people about the science of the coronavirus and more about the social impact of this kind of pandemic.
RF: In that piece you write “normalizing survival is different from normalizing disaster.” Can you talk a little bit about what that distinction means to you and why you think it’s an important one to make?
AN: I think normalizing disaster is where we’ve been, as a country, in the United States for a long time. We’ve had political leadership who have come to power by representing the nation as a disaster, and by offering these apocalyptic visions of where we’re going and social collapse and this kind of unimaginable horror that is looming. It’s a way of causing people to feel paralyzed, to feel like they have no agency, there’s nothing they can do. I think that normalizing disaster is one way to cause people to hide under the covers and cry, rather than get out and vote or get out and join an organization to help clean up a toxic area or, you know, encourage green building.
So, I think for me the opposite of normalizing disaster is normalizing survival, which is looking at these big problems and saying, alright, we can survive this. It’s going to be really hard. But what we need to think about right now is not how bad things are, but how we can work to make them better, no matter how bad they are. I’m not saying look for a silver lining. I’m saying look for solutions and start putting money and energy into those solutions. In 10 years, I hope we can look back on this [pandemic] and say like, oh, we got through that one. Now we have a vaccine. Now we understand coronaviruses better. Hopefully next time there’s a pandemic, you know, we’ll be ready.
RF: With so many coronavirus stories coming out every single day, how have you been deciding how you personally want to contribute to this global discussion about the pandemic?
AN: What I’ve been doing is looking at the social impact of the disease and especially focusing on — because I do a lot of work around archaeology — how deep history can help inform present day policies. And so often when you do have something like a pandemic, or you have something like drought, you know, it destabilizes a political system further and so you wind up with people dying of some kind of natural disaster at the same time that they’re also dying from various political disasters. What’s really important for people to remember in the end is that even when a disaster kind of wears the face of being a natural disaster, like it’s a virus that naturally evolved or it’s a fire that happened because fires happen, there’s always a strong political component.
You’re always going to have a certain background level of death from any kind of disaster — unavoidable deaths that are tragic. And then it’s the role of governments and other organizations to come in and minimize the knock-on effects and minimize additional deaths. And we’re just not seeing that happen in a lot of countries. But as citizens, we can work on trying to create public policies and government organizations that help prevent the worst effects of these kinds of natural disasters, whether those are pandemics or climate disasters or other kinds of problems.
RF: In addition to working as science journalist, you also write science fiction. How has the pandemic affected how you approach your fiction writing?
AN: I think what the pandemic has done for me as a fiction writer is helped me think more realistically about global threats and how they unfold. Because what we’ve really seen with this pandemic socially is how varied the responses are and how varied the results are. And it sort of reminded us how much even though we’re a global society, we’re actually not. We’re a bunch of nations. And within those nations, we’re a bunch of cities and counties and states. And the fate of each of those locations is very different and working together across those boundaries is really important.
I’m working on a novel right now, and I’m not going to have anything in there about pandemics or medicine. I’m actually thinking almost exclusively about environmental issues and climate change. Living through this pandemic has made me feel like issues around climate change are more urgent than ever because that’s something that’s going to continue happening after this outbreak. And unlike a pandemic, climate change isn’t something that kind of spikes up and goes away again. And so I think we have a lot of opportunities now to use metaphors and ideas from dealing with this pandemic to help teach people about how to deal with global climate change and how actions at a local level can affect the globe.