Ed Yong on What We Know About COVID-19 and the Unpredictability of Its Future
From the The Quarantine Tapes Podcast with Paul Holdengräber
Hosted by Paul Holdengräber, The Quarantine Tapes chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. Each day, Paul calls a guest for a brief discussion about how they are experiencing the global pandemic.
On Episode 126 of The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengräber is joined by journalist Ed Yong. Ed has spent the months of quarantine reporting on the pandemic. In their discussion, Ed unravels how we have to look at all aspects of our society to even begin understanding how this pandemic is affecting us.
Ed brings his expertise on the pandemic to bear in an episode that covers how we got to this point of crisis, where we are now, and what it may take to control the pandemic. Ed tells Paul about many of the topics he’s reported on in the past few months, including nursing homes, contact tracing, and COVID “long haulers,” before touching on the personal challenges of reporting in such a difficult moment.
From the episode:
Ed Yong: There is a sense among public health to to reassure people, and that instinct often works. We saw, like I mentioned, in Ebola in 2014, the US disproportionately fell prey to paranoia and panic well out of proportion with the actual threat of the disease. And I wonder if that played into some of this instinct to assure, to assuage people, that in this case wasn’t useful.
Paul Holdengräber: And yet, Ed, you’ve written so interestingly already—two years ago, you wrote about the fact that this pandemic in some way was predictable and therefore preventable.
Ed Yong: Yeah, I think it was clear that a pandemic was going to happen. Emerging diseases are emerging at a faster clip. Every past administration for the last couple of generations has faced emerging diseases, and it was clear, therefore, that Donald Trump and his administration would do the same. And lo and behold it has happened.
Sadly, not enough attention is paid to preparedness in peacetime years. People go through these cycles of panic and neglect where a crisis hits, everyone freaks out, and the minute it’s over, attention and resources start to dwindle. That’s exactly what we saw over the last several years. We’re even seeing it now in the middle of this outbreak, where the pandemic isn’t even over and already people are lapsing into neglect and fatalism. And it’s not helped by the fact that people in the White House, in positions of power, continue to downplay the future threats of the pandemic, continue to talk about it in the past tense. They are exacerbating this panic and neglect cycle, even though the panic phase is not yet over.
Paul Holdengräber: You’ve written a lot about COVID “long haulers.” Can you give us a sense of of what they’re going through, and do you have an idea what the effects of the virus will be, say, in two or five or even ten years down the line?
Ed Yong: Several people, I would say about tens of thousands of people, probably more, have been experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 for many months now. These symptoms vary. They come in erratic but unrelenting waves. They’re usually not severe enough to send people to the hospital, but they are severe enough to severely debilitate their lives. They range from gasping for breath, erratic heartbeats, extreme fatigue that gets worse after even mild amounts of physical or mental activity, neurological symptoms like brain fog and short-term memory loss. A lot of these folks got sick in March in the earliest phases of the pandemic in the US, and are still sick now.
Because they are so different from this caricature of COVID-19, which is that you either are very sick and go to hospital or are mild and recover after a couple of weeks, they have struggled to get recognition, to get support, to get treatment, and now to get things like disability benefits or compensation or allowances from their employers. This is going to be a huge problem. Some of them have recovered. Some of them will recover. But I think that a certain proportion of them will progress to long-term disabilities, as many people who have experienced post-viral illnesses, like ME or dysautonomia, have long experience.
This is an aspect to the pandemic that we need to keep an eye on, because it is entirely plausible that in the coming months and years, rather than just looking at the pandemic’s toll in terms of deaths, we also need to start thinking about disabilities, people who have long-term problems as a result of their encounters with COVID-19 that are going to continue, perhaps even after we deem the pandemic itself to be over.
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Ed Yong is a science journalist who reports for The Atlantic, and is based in Washington DC. His work appears on The Atlantic‘s website and its print magazine; it has also featured in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, and many more. He regularly does talks and interviews, and his TED talk on mind-controlling parasites has been watched by over 1.5 million people. I Contain Multitudes, his first book, looks at the amazing partnerships between animals and microbes. Published in 2016, it became a New York Times bestseller, and was listed in best-of-2016 lists by the NYT, NPR, the Economist, the Guardian, and several others. His second book, An Immense World, will look at the extraordinary sensory worlds of other animals.