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My Job? Telling People What Happens Next

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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.

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Updated 2020-08-30T14:43:25.154Z

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.

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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.

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