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All my life, I’ve been assigned to cover the past. That’s what reporters do, whether it’s a news conference that has just ended, or a killing hushed up decades ago.
Now, for the first time, I’m being asked to cover the future.
I’ve been at The Times since 1976 and have covered global health since the 1990s, when I was a correspondent in South Africa and it was becoming the world’s biggest H.I.V. hot spot.
Since then, I’ve covered pretty much every pandemic or potential pandemic: AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, H5N1 bird flu, H1N1 swine flu, Zika, dengue. And diseases like polio, tuberculosis, malaria, Guinea worm, yellow fever and measles that were once pandemics but are now confined mostly to poor countries.
Now I am trying to envision what the novel coronavirus will look like in the months or years ahead, based on interviews with experts. They might be doctors who fought other diseases, historians who studied earlier pandemics, or people with insights into human behavior under stress.
There aren’t a lot of rules on how to do this.
I’m used to my colleagues coming up to me when an outbreak threatens to reach U.S. shores, clutching my arm and asking quietly: “So, how bad is it? Are we all going to die?”
“Yes,” I always answer. Then I pause, and say: “But not of Ebola” — or whatever they’re worried about.
This was the first time I couldn’t do that. I had to say: “No, not all of us. But someone you know might. Be careful.”
It took me a while to understand the threat. On Dec. 31 last year, I noticed an alert on ProMed-mail, an outbreak-tracking service, about a mysterious viral pneumonia possibly linked to a market in Wuhan, China.
But many such alerts are only false alarms, so I just tucked it away in my brain and went on to other things. Two weeks later, when the virus was spreading, I thought it would be like SARS: dangerous, but containable.
I became really worried on the night of Jan. 30, when China’s lab-confirmed case count went to 10,000 from 500 in a week, with 200 dead. That was different: Rapid spread and 2 percent mortality was the hallmark of the 1918 flu.
It took time to convince others. I came into the office the next day raving that this was The Big One. My editor asked me to call a dozen infectious diseases experts before I wrote anything. (The final score was eight “yes,” two “no,” and two undecided. One of the eight was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases specialist, which settled the issue.)
These days, I no longer feel like a lone crazy man whistling in the wind. Everyone — even President Trump — believes in The Big One. And everyone at The New York Times is covering it.
Now the story is so complex that keeping up with it is nearly impossible. I feel as if I conduct interviews, read studies, and watch TV day and night, just trying to follow shutdowns, school openings, vaccines, treatments, mask battles and what’s happening in Sweden, Hong Kong and New Zealand. You can’t deduce what might happen here without knowing what has worked elsewhere and calculating whether we can do the same thing — or if we’re just too stubborn and too polarized.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 27, 2020
What should I consider when choosing a mask?
- There are a few basic things to consider. Does it have at least two layers? Good. If you hold it up to the light, can you see through it? Bad. Can you blow a candle out through your mask? Bad. Do you feel mostly OK wearing it for hours at a time? Good. The most important thing, after finding a mask that fits well without gapping, is to find a mask that you will wear. Spend some time picking out your mask, and find something that works with your personal style. You should be wearing it whenever you’re out in public for the foreseeable future. Read more: What’s the Best Material for a Mask?
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
Covering the future, of course, can be a booby trap for a journalist. Remember Donald Rumsfeld’s warning about “unknown unknowns”?
My editors found my early prognostications pretty bleak. I’ve been called everything from Mr. Doom ’n’ Gloom to Cassandra to “the Eeyore of the moment.” And there’s no way I can prove I have the facts right — because they don’t exist yet.
When enough time has passed to put some facts on the ground, I have sometimes found that, when I have erred, it was because the scientists I interviewed weren’t pessimistic enough. They were peering into the abyss through rose-colored glasses.
For example: At one point, I reported that the World Health Organization thought China’s lockdown had bought the rest of the world an extra two or three weeks. Actually, the virus was already spreading in Seattle and New York.
I reported that experts said we could contain clusters, trace contacts and stop transmission between cities. We couldn’t.
And I can’t forget that in February, on “The Daily,” I said we might get lucky with hot weather and the virus wouldn’t reach us until fall. Whoops.
So why do we do it? Because our readers are desperate to know.
Prediction is an imperfect art. Viruses mutate, and people do the unexpected. But we’re trying.