U.S. is ‘unwilling or incapable of learning the real lessons’ of pandemic, Atlantic journalist argues

At Benton Award event, Ed Yong examines why COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in health care

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.” 

When vaccines became available, he said, it felt like the public health dimension started eroding and the emphasis was on individuals. That was echoed in rhetoric from CDC leaders including “your health is in your hands,” he added. 

“Pandemics are fundamentally collective problems, as infectious diseases inherently spread from person to person,” he said. “They cannot be fought solely on an individual basis, and they cannot be fought through policy that prioritizes individual action above all else.” 

What about consequences for the population and the U.S. health care system? 

“They’re going to be immense, and I don’t think that as a society we have even really started to grapple with how significant they’re going to be,” Yong said, noting the shortage of nurses that predated COVID and the departure since of many veteran health care workers. 

“I’m just not sure people understand that the quality of health care that they might receive now is not what it was in 2019,” he said. “And that if we keep pretending that this is all over and keep letting infections run amok and keep forcing the health care system to hold the line, that very system is going to erode even further.” 

Struggles of COVID long-haulers 

During the hourlong event, Yong paid special attention to the struggles of people with long COVID-19, saying he has spoken to people who became sick at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020 and are still ill.  

Aside from physical symptoms, which can include shortness of breath, fatigue, and cognitive problems, “one of the most important comorbidities of long COVID is being ignored: having your symptoms doubted, trivialized,” Yong said. 

“A lot of people are not only suffering but also suffering without care or compassion,” he said. 

That resonated with one audience member, Ibrahim Rashid, MPP’22, who told Yong he has long COVID-19 and is working on a tech startup to help others who also have it

“Your article on how COVID long-haulers are fighting for their lives is exactly how I feel,” Rashid said. “It has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I felt very depressed and alone. But discovering your writing helped me see myself within a larger movement. And because of that, I feel less alone and I’m able to do the work that I’m doing for COVID long-haulers.” 

Yong tapped into the power his reporting brought to bear early in the pandemic when, he said, he received more than 1,000 emails in a week in response to a story that drew readers, including Assoc. Prof. Joyce Bell, who nominated Yong for the Benton Award. 

“The writing was sharp and smart. It was critical of the country’s response, and it was honest about the seriousness of the situation at hand, but I still found it calming,” Bell said as she described what led to Yong’s selection for the honor. 

The tendency in journalism is to be “quite fragmentary,” Yong said. “But with something like a pandemic, something that touches all of us, that upends all of our society, that is by definition global in its scope and its status, that approach just doesn’t work.”   

That early pandemic story, he said, “completely changed my understanding of what kind of journalism was necessary to meet the demands at this moment …and about what journalism could accomplish.” 

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Harris Public Policy website.