With thoughtful candor, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong gave a sweeping view of the pandemic and the vulnerabilities it exposed as he recently accepted the University of Chicago’s 2022 Benton Award for Distinguished Public Service.
Yong was honored for his body of work reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic for The Atlantic, which demonstrated “his ability to translate complex science to the public,” according to Ariel Kalil, the Daniel Levin Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, who chaired the University-wide committee that honored Yong.
Citing “the rigor, judiciousness, and humility with which he pursued this effort,” Kalil described Yong as an extremely deserving choice during comments at Nov. 1 event, held at the Keller Center.
Yong accepted the Benton Award from Katherine Baicker, dean and the Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris, before taking questions from her and members of the audience. Topics ranged from 30,000-foot views of policy and journalism to poignant discussions about long COVID-19 and the overburdened U.S. health care system, to the current situation, where what Yong labeled “perpetual vulnerability” exists alongside proclamations that the pandemic has ended.
“On Sept. 18, Joe Biden declared that the pandemic was over and since he said that, just shy of 17,000 Americans have died of COVID, which is a very interesting definition of ‘over,’” Yong said.
“I would argue that this tendency over the last year-and-a-half from leaders, from many influential voices in my profession – the media, and from people all over the country to repeatedly declare the pandemic over when it wasn’t is a reflection of the fact that we rely far too heavily on technological solutions to this kind of problem,” Yong said.
Such solutions, he added, tend to flow most quickly to people with resources and power. People, he added, who “then move on with little care of the gross inequities that are left behind for the people who have to shoulder the brunt of the risk that remains.”
“We seem,” he added, “either unwilling or incapable of learning the real lessons, which are that a lot of baseline vulnerabilities need to be addressed to be better at this entire class of problem. This isn’t just a thing that we’re going to ‘tech’ our way out of.”
Consequences for the health system
Ways to address ongoing challenges were a common thread in the questions Baicker asked Yong. How, she asked, can evidenced-based information get to readers who are increasingly relying on news sources that reinforce preexisting views?
Yong spoke about how The Atlantic provided time and space for him to write long-form pieces that could tell people not only what was happening but help them derive meaning. A “short” story, he said, was 2,500 words, with many articles relying on at least a dozen sources. The goal was to demonstrate, he said, “how all of it fits together: Here is where we are, here are all the things that led us to this point, here are all the places we could go in the future.”
What, Baicker asked, did he wish had been done differently in terms of public policy?
“A lot of our policy is geared towards individual action,” he said, noting that “the United States’ very strong bent towards individualism harms us in these public health crises.”