Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
Stepping away from journalism during a pandemic may be one of the dumbest choices that an outbreak reporter can make. But that’s exactly what I did after spending so many weekends of early 2020 pacing around a reservoir, ruminating on my blind spots. That Fall, I was accepted into the MIT Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship, allowing me to watch the pandemic play out from a remove for four and a half months.
I have reported on infectious diseases in Liberia, Sudan, Myanmar, and many other low-income countries. I’ve seen firsthand how extreme poverty, unstable governance, and a lack of paved roads, electricity, and medicine impedes a health response. I assumed that the United States would fare far better in a pandemic because it faces none of these obvious hardships. It’s now clear that I was wrong — but not alone. Every pandemic specialist I talked with in the initial months of 2020 was as shocked as me to see Covid-19 bring America to its knees.
Like many of these experts, my background is in science. But the reasons why the world’s richest country buckled under Covid-19 had less to do with science than with politics, culture, history, and economics — subjects I know less about. I became worried about getting so caught up in the deluge of daily news that I would miss the deeper story about why this and other epidemics flourish. Plus, mobs of journalists were covering Covid-19, and it had become hard to say anything unique. So, thanks to this fellowship, I put down my proverbial pen, and learned.
I spent the fall reading and speaking to historians, political scientists, and public health experts about the roots of epidemics that have plagued humankind for centuries, and I thought long and hard about what these ravages, including Covid-19, reveal about us. As Frank Snowden points out in “Epidemics and Society,” crises provide a lens through which to examine our severely compromised standards of living, which go ignored in more settled times. And as W.E.B. Du Bois exposed through his research, easy answers are often biased and scientifically lazy. In his 1899 report, “The Philadelphia Negro,” Du Bois collected data on housing, wages, socio-economic status, political participation, and more, to understand patterns of disease. He wrote: “We must study, we must investigate, we must attempt to solve; and the utmost that the world can demand is, not lack of human interest and conviction, but rather the heart-quality of fairness, and an earnest desire for the truth despite its possible unpleasantness.”
Deeper understandings are vital to solving big problems like pandemics. In the way of these truths are politically savvy, simple so-called fixes. We kid ourselves.
Here’s an example from the past: For nearly a decade in the 1980s, politicians willfully ignored the reasons for why people were dying from HIV/AIDS because of who was dying. They wasted time and funds on irrational solutions that pleased their constituents, such as abstinence, but failed to curb the epidemic.
History is also instructive when it comes to predicting how well-considered solutions might stumble. For instance, in A History of Global Health, historian Randall Packard describes how, in the mid-20th century, the nascent World Health Organization pushed universal healthcare as a defense against epidemics. But right-wing politicians in the U.S. linked the idea to socialism and communism, and instead diverted funds to programs targeting single diseases. Similar arguments against universal healthcare in the U.S. reverberate today, even though the world has changed.
I’ve now returned to my position as a reporter at Nature, where I’ll cover the pandemic in its second year. But this time, I’ll see each dilemma as a point along a trajectory in time and space. As various wise people have said, you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.
Amy Maxmen is a senior reporter at Nature. Her writing also appears in National Geographic, Wired, and Scientific American, among other outlets.