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Deconstructing “How the Pandemic Defeated America”
Learning from science journalism at its finest
Actively deconstruct the work of good journalists in an attempt to decipher and reverse-engineer what makes their writing sing. — Ed Yong
Ed Yong has written some of the defining articles of the COVID era. In March he predicted that the United States could have the worst outbreak of the industrialized world. In April he painted a vivid picture of what the pandemic summer would look like. He has written about masks, long haulers, COVID mutations, virus immunology, and the mental toll on public health professionals. In a year of outstanding science journalism Ed Yong’s run has arguably been the best.
This month, the Atlantic featured Yong’s work for one of its twin cover stories. In it, he answers one of the biggest question of the coronavirus-era: why did things go so badly in the U.S.? The article is a terrific piece for other writers to analyze. Yong himself asked aspiring journalists to take the time to deconstruct the work of good journalists, so I thought it only fitting to turn the magnifying glass on him.
Not only is there a lot to learn from in “How the Pandemic Defeated America”, but it is free to access! If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so, but it isn’t necessary. This is not a fine-toothed dissection of the article; it is over 8000 words. Think of this as a highlight reel rather than a play-by-play.
Before even beginning, let’s acknowledge the breadth of this project. Yong is trying to summarize all the causes that led to the COVID outbreak in the United States. Early in the pandemic, I considered writing an article about how COVID was the “everything problem,” since it is so all-encompassing in both its causes and effects. I quickly realized that the project was way beyond my capacity. What caused the pandemic? Everything. What has been affected by the pandemic? Everything. Compelling, right?
Ed Yong took on that challenge. He decided to take the biggest big-picture view possible. Many great stories offer a unique angle on an obscure topic, giving the “I never would have thought of that” experience. This article is the opposite. It is telling a story that is completely obvious, but is nearly impossible to get your arms around.
Yong even draws attention to the enormity of the question he is trying to answer. In the opening paragraph he writes:
The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
The last paragraph of the opening section reads:
Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.
Statements like these orient the reader for the tour they are about to undertake. It also makes clear that fully excavating this topic goes well beyond the scope of one article.
Fast forwarding to the concluding paragraph, Yong writes:
The pandemic has been both tragedy and teacher. Its very etymology offers a clue about what is at stake in the greatest challenges of the future, and what is needed to address them. Pandemic. Pan and demos. All people.
Rather than attempting to tie things up he makes a broad gesture to everyone and everything. “All people” are both a cause and a solution to the crisis. Stories with a thread of uncertainty feel fitting for our time.
Brevity and Clarity
Given the scope of the article, brevity is key in covering all the necessary ground. This entire article is a case-study in concise writing. Yong is able to compress massive topics into just a few sentences. He is careful to give a respectful nod to bigger subjects, but doesn’t get caught in any unnecessary tangents. Here is one example among many:
The hardest-hit buildings were those that had been jammed with people for decades: prisons. Between harsher punishments doled out in the War on Drugs and a tough-on-crime mindset that prizes retribution over rehabilitation, America’s incarcerated population has swelled sevenfold since the 1970s, to about 2.3 million. The U.S. imprisons five to 18 times more people per capita than other Western democracies. Many American prisons are packed beyond capacity, making social distancing impossible. Soap is often scarce. Inevitably, the coronavirus ran amok. By June, two American prisons each accounted for more cases than all of New Zealand. One, Marion Correctional Institution, in Ohio, had more than 2,000 cases among inmates despite having a capacity of 1,500.
This is a summary of the history of mass incarceration in half a paragraph. Does Yong fully cover this subject? No, obviously not, but this is probably due to faith in his reader. He knows that his audience is aware of the crisis in the criminal justice system. Spelling out the entire history of the War on Drugs is both beside-the-point and unnecessary.
At the same time, Yong chooses not to just throw out a buzzword like “mass incarceration” and move on. In this case, he takes the time to stress some statistics that are relevant to the pandemic i.e. prisons are packed, meaning social distancing is impossible. This feels in-line with a quote attributed to Einstein: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Pseudo-Clichés and Metaphors
One cute feature of Yong’s writing was his use of clichés with a twist. Here are some examples:
The U.S. gets little bang for its exorbitant buck.
Snake-oil merchants have peddled ineffectual silver bullets (including actual silver).
SARS‑CoV‑2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way.
Clichés are generally considered bad writing, but Yong has a way of slipping them in. Each of these examples are almost a cliché, but have a slight alteration, making them feel less over-used. This is a very stealable technique if you want to find a way to smuggle clichés into your own writing.
Yong also does a lovely job using metaphors in his writing.
Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip — and viruses have come bursting out.
Water running along a pavement will readily seep into every crack; so, too, did the unchecked coronavirus seep into every fault line in the modern world.
They acquire the goods they need in the moment through labyrinthine supply chains that wrap around the world in tangled lines, from countries with cheap labor to richer nations like the U.S. The lines are invisible until they snap.
Use of visual metaphors can feel reductive or unsophisticated in an extremely serious piece of journalism, but Yong proves that this can be done tastefully. Perhaps it is how quickly he fits in these images. You will see some authors belabor metaphors to squeeze the juice out of them. Yong is confident that his reader will understand what he is saying, and does not over-work his point.
Yong’s writing on COVID has a constant eye to the emotional stakes of the pandemic. He is a science journalist who is writing a tragedy. For my first read of the article, I felt as if Yong was almost writing a contemporary history of the COVID pandemic, trying to summarize all the events of winter and spring of 2020. Reading the article again, I realized how much emotional language is woven into the article right from the beginning.
In the first paragraph:
A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin.
It is spelled out immediately that this story is about loss and defeat. It is a David-versus-Goliath story, except you want to root for the giant. Framing this not just as a series of events but a tragedy clearly sets out the stakes.
In the section covering the early spread of the virus within the United States, Yong writes:
It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the testing debacle incapacitated the U.S. People with debilitating symptoms couldn’t find out what was wrong with them. Health officials couldn’t cut off chains of transmission by identifying people who were sick and asking them to isolate themselves.
The author is taking a step back from the flow of his narrative to acknowledge the emotional experience of the individuals impacted by the pandemic. Patients, who are suffering and confused. Health care professions who are helpless to slow the spread. The lack of tests in not simply a logistical problem, but a traumatic experience.
While the piece is filled with poignant language, Yong is careful to not take on a despairing or depressing tone. The following paragraph is from the concluding section of the article.
It is hard to stare directly at the biggest problems of our age. Pandemics, climate change, the sixth extinction of wildlife, food and water shortages — their scope is planetary, and their stakes are overwhelming. We have no choice, though, but to grapple with them. It is now abundantly clear what happens when global disasters collide with historical negligence.
There is a certain inevitability to this. Is this heavy? Very, but it never goes so far as to say that we are doomed. He also balances this statement with a more hopeful following paragraph, which includes lines like this:
Recovery is possible, but it demands radical introspection.
Talking About Trump
Writing about Donald Trump with any subtlety is tough. He has been a uniquely terrible leader, and his role in allowing the pandemic to spread is beyond description. At the same time, it is an oversimplification to say “the reason the virus won was because of Trump.” The U.S. had plenty of problems before Trump, and those preexisting conditions cannot be ignored. It is straight-forward to say “This is all Trump’s fault” or “These problems predated Trump.” Finding a balance between these two positions is much more challenging.
Yong’s approach is quite deliberate. If you search where Trump is mentioned in the article, you will see that he is discussed in the section addressing the initial spread of the virus, and then he is almost entirely absent. There are a couple references to the Trump administration through the middle of the piece, but these are fairly thin.
But when Yong finally gets around to writing about Trump in the bottom third of the article, and he drops this beat:
No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”
For those keeping track at home, that is one sentence. 212 words. Yong hasn’t been holding back, he has building up to release one giant blow like a cartoon hero. Having all of Trump’s failings and mistakes grouped together and spelled out so clinically brings a deeper awareness of how completely he has failed. By leaving Trump out of the majority of the article it has both given space to all the other issues, and allowed Yong to deliver one extremely powerful hit. I don’t know if I have ever seen structure be used in quite this way to execute such a sophisticated maneuver.
Yong is also able to solve a separate challenge related to writing about Trump — everything has been said! He may be the most talked-about person in history! Yong’s wind-up punch actually feels new, which is difficult to execute at this point.
As a side note, can you imagine writing this sentence? Can you imagine coming up with this and discussing it with your editor? Even if I had this idea, I don’t think I would have the confidence to follow through, and I certainly wouldn’t have the skill to pull it off. It would be so easy for this paragraph to come off as overwrought, dramatic, or unreadable. I would be very interested to hear what the writing process looked like for this particular sentence. When did they come up with the idea? Did they know it was going to be a hit, or were they scared it would fall flat? As much as I love this sentence, it is amazing that this made it to print.
Ed Yong’s work is great for many reasons, and it is clear that he has put tremendous effort into honing his craft. Hopefully this analysis has provided some insight into how he was able to execute such an illuminating piece. Some of these lessons are more transfer-able than others, but there is certainly a lot to be learned from so skilled a writer.