Science authors in the Covidician Era

I wrote the cover story for today’s Guardian Review, but scheduling changes meant a much longer piece was cut down. It’s a shame to lose some of these excellent voices, so I’m publishing the longer piece here.

2020 has the makings of an epic saga: a monstrous disease that took over the world, killing and maiming the oldest, poorest and most vulnerable, imprisoning the population in lockdown – and the heroic scientists who battled day and night to create a miracle vaccine to defeat it. Books will be written about their quest, and we will rush to buy them, hoping to understand more about this terrible pandemic and how it was ended. They are already being written.

This has been an extraordinary year to be a science writer, watching the formerly niche subjects of epidemiology, virology, and immunology, take centre stage – a bit like how it must be for constitutional law experts when a new Brexit detail is announced and everyone scrambles to gen up and muster an opinion on it. Suddenly, science was hot, and doing it – and writing about it – was more interesting to the public than making movies or playing football (especially when neither of these were allowed). The scramble to get a grip on this invisible global killer was all-consuming, and writers rose to the challenge, churning out reams of coverage: the disease was only officially named (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)) on 11 February; by June, the first book on it had been published.

To give a flavour of the pace of change, on 19 January, I was part of a panel “reading the papers” for BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme, and I picked out a story in the Observer about a new Sars-like virus in China that was thought to have affected about 1700 people. Predictably, I proposed that we should take the threat of this disease seriously, and, equally predictably, my two fellow panellists countered, recommending “healthy scepticism”, saying scientists were “overreacting” and that they were “exhausted by next plague stories”. We were all about to get much more exhausted.

Fast forward a month, and I was speaking at the same public literary event as a palliative care doctor and an earnest mathematical modeller from the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, Adam Kurchaski, who was giving a talk about his new book The Rules of Contagion. His talk involved a powerpoint of slides with graphs showing exponential infection rates and equations explaining R values. Watching it, I felt a little pity for the guy – it was interesting to me, especially given the UK had experienced three cases of the new coronavirus, but come on, read the room, who here would have the slightest interest in R values? I worried for his book sales and clapped extra hard to be supportive.

Well, we all know how that panned out. Just a couple of weeks later, a parent approached me in the playground as I dropped my kids off for school, chatting about “the R number”. Two weeks after that, the entire nation was in lockdown. Incidentally, the palliative care doctor, the deeply empathetic Rachel Clarke, became, like Kurchaski, a regular booking on news and current affairs programmes, both providing valuable expertise as the R value rose and, with it, the deaths.

As the world shut down, horizons shrank, and my diary had more crossed out than a redacted government report. Like other authors with a newly published book, I found my entire year’s planned publicity events, the festivals, talks and readings – the fun treat of meeting readers and writers, after the long slog of solitary writing – cancelled.

“I remember, on 13 March, I was at Words By The Water book festival in the Lake District, promoting my book The Art of Rest, and before I gave my talk, I climbed a hill, and then checked my phone. In the time it took me to climb that hill, I had 20 emails cancelling all my events for the next few months,” says Claudia Hammond. “That turned out to be my last live event and, bookwise, it went completely quiet and I suddenly had nothing at all to do.”

But for all the disappointed authors, there were others who were relieved. For Bill Bryson, the timing was fortunate. “I couldn’t have been luckier in unlucky circumstances,” he says. From August 2019, Bryson was doing intensive global publicity for the launch of his book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Then the US edition came out in mid-October, “so I had to start it all over again, with a book tour in America in the new year. I gave my last talk in Santa Barbara, California, just as Coronavirus, was starting to get scary in March, and made it home to England just before lockdown started.”

Bryson had long-planned to retire at the end of 2019, but his latest book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, becoming an enduring bestseller put paid to that idea. “January came, then February, March, and I was still up to my elbows in commitments, and I thought this is never going to happen. And then, of course, the whole world shuts down, and suddenly I am retired: I can sit and look at my empty calendar for ages, and just delight in the fact that there’s nothing there.

“So in a personal sense, lockdown was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I had retirement imposed upon me,” he says.

While Bryson took the chance to step away from book writing, veteran infectious diseases reporter, Debora Mackenzie was gearing up for the biggest assignment of her life. A longtime correspondent for New Scientist magazine, Mackenzie has covered everything from Sars to Mers to Ebola, so her finely tuned antennae picked up signals as far back as 30 December, when she noticed a post on ProMED (The Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases), describing an outbreak of pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Busy hosting a full household in her French home on the outskirts of Geneva, she kept an eye out through the holidays, becoming increasingly worried. Before January was out, she had predicted the pandemic.

“I was the first journalist to call it,” Mackenzie says, “and after that, I continued near-constant corona reporting: 14 articles by 13 March.”

Meanwhile, she’d been contacted by literary agent, Max Edwards, who suggested she write a “crash book” about the pandemic, which could be published on a rapid timeframe. “On 6 March I sent Max the pitch; on 17th, I got the offer from Hachette,” she says. Mackenzie then entered a writing frenzy, working from 7am to around midnight, for 45 days straight, to produce COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One. “It coincided with lockdown in France, so, my husband was doing his job for the International Labour Organisation from the kitchen table. And my daughter, who was briefly over from LA (but trapped by travel restrictions), was loudly editing horror films in the next room to my office.”

Decades spent covering diseases, nurturing scientists, infectious disease experts and other valuable contacts, paid off. Even when the key scientists were working flat-out, with no time for the media, they found time for her. Despite the domestic distractions, Mackenzie managed an enviably impressive efficiency. “I delivered the book 4 May, took 2 weeks to edit, and it came out as an ebook on 1 June, and in hardback 14 July,” she says.

At the same time that Mackenzie was considering writing her first book, in Washington D.C., science writer Ed Yong, was considering the opposite. When the pandemic hit the States, Yong was right in the middle of a 10-month sabbatical – “book leave” – from his staff job at the Atlantic magazine, to complete a popular science book about how animals sense the world around us. “I’d been following the news about [what became known as] COVID-19, through the first months of the year, with a growing unease,” Yong says. “I saw it spread around the world, and I was torn between the fact that I had a book to write and that all of this was happening and I’m a science reporter who has covered pandemics before….”

By mid March, Yong could wait no more. “Simultaneously, I decided I should go back as my editors at the Atlantic said, ‘we would like you to come back’ – and I started working full-time on the pandemic. Luckily my publishers and everyone involved in the book stuff were very gracious and immediately said, ‘Yes, of course, this is this is the work that you need to be doing right now’.”

Yong quickly established himself as a leading voice on the pandemic. His first big article, published 25 March, was bravely titled ‘How the pandemic will end’. “That was a 5,000-word piece that I reported and wrote in a sort of 10-day fever-dream,” he says. “It hit at exactly the time when people had started going into stay-at-home orders. There was so much chaos and misinformation that it seemed this was the question that everyone was asking. I got 1,000 reader emails in the space of a couple of weeks. Tens of millions of people read the piece – it became one of the most-read pieces the Atlantic has ever published.”

For Hammond, it also turned out to be her busiest time. “I thought I had a completely empty diary, but then I ended up working on three different BBC radio series all about the virus – Health Check, Inside Health and The Evidence – making 63 programmes so far about COVID,” she says. “Meanwhile, because of lockdown, and people being furloughed, Rest seems to have taken on new resonance for many people. I thought the pandemic was going to be disastrous for my book sales, but it’s had a lot of interest, and even been picked as Waterstones’ Book of the Month.”

Like Hammond, Yong, and so many science journalists, I, too, found myself writing almost exclusively about this new SARS-CoV-2 virus, only recently named, but endlessly fascinating for commissioners and the general public. No angle seemed too niche for this new appetite, from social psychology of herd behaviour to the epidemiology of herd immunity, from genetic sequencing to spike protein targets. My kids’ swimming teacher mentioned reading an article I wrote in the BMJ, a fairly dry journal for medical professionals. Covid-19 had upended all our lives and people wanted to know everything about it, and that meant reading science writers to understand the latest scientific discoveries.

“It’s been completely fascinating looking at just one topic all the time, but it has been gruelling, particularly during the first lockdown when it felt like as though any hope of things changing was a very long way off. I would then spend all day interviewing scientists who were often very worried about it,” Hammond says. “What made it more difficult was that, particularly at the beginning, everyone had such a thirst for it, that if I did zoom calls with friends or family in the evening, everybody would ask more and more COVID questions because they wanted answers. So that’s a tiny bit like then doing the programme all over again, and explaining it all over again.

“I did have a big advantage in doing specialist programmes, rather than news, which meant I got to talk to the scientists for much longer, and actually include the nuance. And although the scientists may have sounded really gloomy in a soundbite on the news, when I talked them in more detail, they were always optimistic that the science would get us out of this in the end. So sometimes I’d come out of it actually feeling really optimistic, because I was speaking to some of the cleverest people in the world about this, and hearing how really hard they were working to try to develop a vaccine or different ways of testing. And actually, that was really encouraging and made me feel so much better about the whole thing.”

For Laura Spinney, whose 2017 book about the 2018 Spanish flu pandemic, Pale Rider, predicted the current crisis, this has been a whirlwind of a year as the book shot into bestseller lists in multiple countries, and sold new translation rights across the world. Suddenly, she had to drop her current book projects to write endless articles, carry out “zillions of webinars, public and specialist talks, radio and television all about the historical comparison.”

It’s not just science writers who have been extraordinarily busy, of course, this has been a remarkable year for scientists. A vast amount of research has been generated this year, with a shift towards preprints and speed, and people from other specialties focusing on it because it’s so urgent. “It’s almost like ‘body scientific’ has been affected with COVID – like our actual bodies have – putting all its resources into this one massive problem,” Spinney says. “That’s been fascinating to watch.”

Science was having its moment around the world. Suddenly scientists were flanking the UK prime minister at press conferences every day, as Boris Johnson declared he was “being led by The Science”. And this became a problem. Over the summer, “The Science” became increasingly politicised by politicians with little or no scientific literacy.

“Initially, in January, I saw this as infectious disease story unfolding, and that’s really not my path, so I got on with my stuff. I had four books on the go at various stages,” says science writer Philip Ball. “But I soon realised how big this was going to be, and what was interesting, from the point of view of what I do, was the interaction that it was showing between science and society and politics. I even briefly considered writing a quick book about it,” he laughs.

This is the first digitally witnessed pandemic, with people being able to watch infection and death rates evolve in real time, but, as Spinney points out, compared with the 2018 pandemic, we are not that much more knowledgeable about the epidemiology, figures like the infection fatality rate (IFR) – partly because we’re still in the midst of it. “We need distance from it, to collect and make sense of the data,” she says. “But how can we ever know how many people were infected, say, back in March, when there were no tests and even now, when tests are not completely reliable?” Spinney herself contracted Covid along with her husband in September, and lost her sense of smell for two weeks, although like so many, she was not tested.

Nothing brings a global pandemic into sharper focus for a writer than nearly dying from it. Adam Rutherford was busy promoting his new book, How To Argue With A Racist, in mid March, when he started to feel a bit rundown and developed a cough. He called into the BBC studios, to let them know that, like his producer and several others in the Science Unit, he probably had Covid, and wouldn’t be coming in. The next day, during a phone interview about it for the Today Programme, he told Martha Kearney that he expected to be over it quickly. In fact, Rutherford was gravely ill for weeks, and now suffers from long-covid.

“When I was at my very worst, feeling rotten, expelling things from every orifice, and drifting in and out of consciousness, the ambulance was called,” he says. “I had been remotely diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, which had worsened because the first course of antibiotics hadn’t worked. I’d been given a different course, but my oxygen saturation was down to 83 – you get hospitalised when it falls to 90 – so the ambulance was on its way, but there was a two-hour delay…. I thought I was going to die,” he says.

“And then the second round of antibiotics did that magical thing and I woke up in the morning, having survived.” For Rutherford, covid has been lifechanging, leaving him not just with enduring breathlessness and fatigue, but new insight into disability. “It makes me think a lot about how there are millions of people out there with a health issue, whether it’s mental or, or physical, or a combination of the two, which is definitional – something that they have to think about all the time. And it makes one more compassionate, more empathetic, because it’s very easy if you’re healthy just to disregard people who have health complaints,” Rutherford says.

“One of the outcomes of a near death experience is that I only want to work on projects that I feel passionately about,” he says. For a while, that meant avoiding Covid and working on a couple of unrelated book projects. But, Rutherford couldn’t avoid it completely, because Covid was being racialised.

“The American edition of How to Argue is currently scheduled for February (ck) 2021, and I wrote a new preface for it, addressing the ways COVID was being racialised. First, it was the provenance of the disease – there was violence against Anglo-Chinese people, and in America, there were more than 4,000 documented cases of violence against Chinese Americans and Korean Americans. Trump started referring to Covid as ‘China virus’ and ‘Kung Flu’.

We’ve known from very early on in this pandemic that COVID is far more serious and deadly for the elderly and those with certain conditions, such as diabetes. The data on infections and deaths from the disease in the UK and the US, also show that Black and Asian people are proportionately at far greater risk. For public health experts, this is not at all surprising – these groups are at greater risk of a huge range of health conditions and have proportionately lower life expectancy, owing to stark socioeconomic inequalities nationally. In Britain, this group is more likely to live in urban areas, in poverty, crowded housing, multigenerational households, be in insecure work that make shielding financially unviable, be ‘essential workers’ in public-interacting roles such as healthcare, transportation, servers in shops or cafes, all of which raises infection risk. Nevertheless, many searched for a genetic explanation.

“Early on, people started talking about a genetic predisposition to infection, which if it does exist, is going to be insignificant compared to the list of known socioeconomic issues,” Rutherford says. “We always lean towards a new sciency artefact, such as a genetic explanation, as something that we can maybe tackle, because we’re not willing to do the hard thing, which is to tackle socioeconomic inequity,” he says.

The COVID pandemic has clearly been a much broader story than the science of how a virus infects us, and many of us have worked to convey the social, economic and environmental context of this global crisis. Yong describes the pandemic as an “omni crisis”, because it touches every aspect of our lives. “It was clear from early on that to really understand it, I would also need to talk to historians and sociologists, anthropologists, scholars who understand disability… rather than just the usual virologists and epidemiologist and immunologists,” Yong says. “I think, you can’t understand a problem this big, or what it means for the world, or how it’s going to play out, if you don’t also bring in the social sciences in the humanities too.”

A pandemic is a complex problem that affects – and is a product of – our human system: how people interact with each other, our socioeconomic inequalities, who we trust and learn behaviours from, as well as how the virus interacts with our body’s cells. For instance, the R (reproduction) value, which is the average number of people an infected individual infects, is not an immutable constant, but depends on context: it will be different for people eating together in a restaurant than for those passing outside wearing masks, for instance. We also know that some people are superspreaders and others seem not to infect others. These nuances are important because understanding this complexity can help to drive effective policy, including mask-wearing and back-tracing of contacts in an outbreak.

Because of the complexity, the field of Covid knowledge encompasses multiple areas of scientific expertise, from emergency care, to respiratory physiology, to virology, epidemiology, crowd psychology, infectious disease, and so on. And these experts don’t always agree. The problem has been compounded by scientists with no expertise in the relevant field concerned, expressing their tuppence worth – often in contradiction of the messages delivered by those with actual expertise. The message then becomes, scientists are divided over the issue, even when they are largely not – something that I’ve watched happen with climate science. Experienced science writers are able to sidestep these distractions and speak to the actual researchers in the field, nevertheless, the uncertainty, and diversity of legitimate views is easy to politicise.

Populism is, at its heart, a denial of complexity and populist leaders have tended to look for simple answers and, dangerously, to spin politically useful decisions as being based on The Science. There is, of course, no singular version of “science” for a complex system, but a wise leader guided by knowledgeable advisers should be able to navigate the different scientific arguments among experts, and the inherent uncertainty, to avoid catastrophe. Instead, science writers found themselves having to produce endless articles explaining why letting the virus rage through the population – euphemistically described as acquiring “herd immunity” (something usually derived from vaccination programmes) – was not a desirable strategy, and whether facemasks were useful or not.

In the US, the Trump administration openly trashed science and the nation’s most eminent experts. By contrast, the UK government, continued to state it was “following the science” but increasingly ignored the advice of its own scientific advisers (leading to the establishment of the Independent SAGE group of scientists). The government exploited the public trust in scientists to push through their favoured policies or excuse their actions, including the particularly unedifying Dominic Cummings episode, against which neither the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser nor Chief Medical Officer spoke out.

“It has been so interesting to have a real-time example of the process of science, and I hope that good things will come out of that,” says Philip Ball. “It will have given people a glimpse into how science really works and the fact that it’s about disagreements and working with uncertainty. But it was politicised very quickly.”

After more than 200 scientists signed an open letter expressing deep concern about the UK’s herd immunity approach, Health Secretary Matt Hancock rowed back, saying that “Herd immunity is not a part of [the plan]. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy”, further muddying the waters.

The result, many fear, has been public erosion of trust not just in government but also in scientists, and just as trust is most needed. We’ve seen a rise in unscientific conspiracy theories, and for every science writer rigorously explaining the research findings, there has been a high-profile commentator opining against mask-wearing, denying official infection figures and helping spread misinformation. Science writers feel a responsibility to challenge misinformation, particularly when it’s dangerous to health, but wading into a social media battle rarely ends well. Often it’s more pragmatic to spend your time, energy and skills in clarifying the scientific findings, evidence and recommendations.

“At the beginning, I was trying to counter misinformation in any WhatsApp groups I was in, and then I realised that it’s too time consuming to do that. And that what I’m supposed to be doing is making a programming,” Hammond says. “The world service has 97 million listeners across the week, and what I should be concentrating on is talking to more people about the right information, than a few in a whatsapp group. So I stopped doing that except for sometimes posting things where people could find out the information.”

For me, having written extensively about the climate crisis over the years, this all felt very familiar: the politicisation of science, the evidence-deniers, anti-mitigation groups, and so on. Indeed many of the same people, and financial backers and lobbyists were involved. In America, attitudes to COVID fell down political partisan lines, largely driven by Trump downplaying the risks.

“COVID-19 acted like a lens that focused all of these issues about what was happening in our society more generally, and to democracy, in a very intense, immediate way,” Ball says. “It was so revealing that all the same contrarians who were against climate change, and against the debating of actual facts in Brexit, were now denying COVID or denying that it could be a problem.”

One of the difficulties in understanding the pandemic has been the invisibility of the crisis. “This is not like a hurricane or a flood – there’s no water lapping around your ankles, or collapsed buildings. The horror of the pandemic is invisible to most of us,” Yong says. “I wrote a piece to this week about how healthcare workers are burnt out. I was looking out of my window at a normal sunny day, and in my ear nurse was crying. And that’s really hard. There is a bizarre disconnect between your immediate physical experience and the true scope of the tragedy of the pandemic.”

One of the ways Yong tried to portray the enormity of the crisis, was by zooming out of the minutiae. There’s so much information, and it’s all fragmentary, so I tried to create a framework, a 30,000 foot view, that allows people to survey everything that is going on without just being lost in it,” he says.

“Writing about something where the stakes are so high and the scope is so big was always going to be a challenge. But to do it in the, in the context of so much misinformation, so much political negligence, I think that’s, that’s been extra difficult,” Yong admits. “But it’s also been a really instructive experience, trying to do a very different and more holistic kind of reporting.

“It will shake a lot of people in the scientific community, whether they’re researchers, science authors or journalists,” he believes. “We’ve had a bit of a naive mindset: you write about the science, include maybe one sentence of policy implication, and then push it out into the world and assume that some magical people are going to implement it for the betterment of humanity.

“COVID shows that to be a lie. You can innovate as much as you like with the work, but it’s going to run up against a wall of misinformation, of political nonsense. So, neither scientists nor science journalists can divorce themselves from that. If the goal is actually public service and public understanding, then you have to grapple with the social context of the science, you can’t just do the science – it’s not enough.”

Despite the problems, deliberate and otherwise, public interest and trust in science remains strong, as does the government’s reliance on The Science, to the extent that the announcement of the most recent UK lockdown came after an amuse bouche of abstruse, illegible and unlabelled graphs delivered rapidly during a powerpoint presentation – the impression worryingly to impart the idea of “science” rather than any actual science.

However, with the announcements of effective vaccines on the horizon, scientists are reinvigorated in the public imagination, becoming the heroes we all need. The tale of painstaking discovery, of global collaboration against the odds to deliver the Holy Grail for our time, has become the dominant narrative. And after months of hopeless misery, there is huge appetite for it.

“It’s really exciting to be in the privileged position of seeing the embargoed news, knowing it’s about to be released, and that everyone is going to feel a little bit happier and hopeful,” Hammond says. “It shows that science works, and it is lovely to be able to talk about some good news, even when we talk about the caveats.”

In the grip of a pandemic winter, we are still a long way from delivering the happy ending, but the scientific discoveries made this year in testing, treatments and now vaccines have been a vindication of the scientific process, a story of international collaboration, selfless determination and belief in human solutions. There will be huge numbers of books written about this pandemic, studies of politics and economics, memoirs and novels. But look out for the science ones – they have the power to root our drama in the workings of biology, human systems, and the scientific quest to solve a global catastrophe. And there have never been better writers to capture this extraordinary story.

One thought

  1. Dear Gaia, thank you for being a writer and getting published and now being an “authority” asked to write articles. Some might say that you are “just a writer”, but writers like myself know that real writers have a special sauce they MUST produce. H.G. Wells is known as a “futurist” but was “merely’ a very good writer. Franz Kafka was NOT a philosopher, just a really good writer who “couldn’t help” saying what he “had to” say. And you are not a “climate scientist” but a great writer, now recognized in the marketplace of ideas. I am now reading “The Good Ancestor” by Roman Krznaric. He is a writer who has produced this “serious” book, with many footnoted sources, a proper “study” of “A Radical Prescription For Long-Term Thinking” (the subtitle). May the writers that I read live long and prosper…

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