Longreads Best of 2020: Writing on COVID-19

Our top story picks in COVID-19 reporting this year.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors featured many COVID-19 stories from across the web, and below, we’ve narrowed down 11 picks that really resonated with us. This roundup is focused on reported features; we initially included a few pandemic essays in this category, but those will instead appear in the upcoming Best of Essays list. 

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How the Pandemic Defeated America (Ed Yong, The Atlantic)

The Atlantic‘s coverage of COVID-19 was exceptional this year, and Yong’s deep, thoughtful September feature lays it all out. How did the U.S. get here? Everything that went wrong was predictable and preventable, and despite all of its resources and scientific expertise, America’s leaders failed monumentally to control the virus at every turn.

The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.

Inside the Nightmare Voyage of the Diamond Princess (Doug Bock Clark, GQ)

Another devastating read, “The Pariah Ship” by Michael Smith, Drake Bennett, and K. Oanh Haat, recounts the nightmare journey of Holland America’s MS Zaandam.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws of tourism, and cruise ships are a symbol of the disastrous effects that COVID-19 has had on the travel industry as a whole. Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess, which departed on January 20 this year from Japan’s Port of Yokohama, was the first ship to suffer a major outbreak. Clark’s account of the voyage and subsequent quarantine of the ship’s 3,711 passengers and crew is riveting yet terrifying. He weaves stories of numerous people on board, from the more-privileged (a pair of traveling couples called the “Four Amigos”) to the overworked and underprotected (like security crewmember Sonali Thakkar). His reporting of the U.S. government’s response is superb, especially from the perspective of Dr. James Lawler, the infectious-disease expert called in to lead the evacuation of American passengers back to the U.S. We also get a glimpse of what the experience is like for the ship’s captain, Gennaro Arma, who was eventually the last person to disembark.

The Amigos, reduced now to three, along with the 325 other American evacuees, were still waiting on the buses. They had spent three hours idling on the pier and then, once they drove to the airport, sat on the tarmac for two more hours. Now, as the delay extended into a sixth hour, the passengers were nearing revolt. They were exhausted. And more problematically for the largely elderly passengers: The buses had no bathrooms.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where it was still Sunday afternoon, the fate of the waylaid evacuees was being decided. Around the time the passengers were exiting the Diamond Princess, Japanese officials had blindsided their American counterparts with the news that some of the passengers boarding the buses had actually tested positive several days before. Soon many of the highest-level members of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were arguing about what to do. Representatives from the CDC continued to fear spreading the virus. William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for the State Department, wanted to bring everyone home anyway. Those urging the evacuation noted that the planes had been prepared with isolation units to contain the sick.

As the debate raged, the evacuees were demanding to be let off the buses, quarantine be damned, to find a bathroom. Carl was breathing so hard his masked breath fogged his glasses as he strained to control his bladder. Some seniors were crying. Finally, a few were allowed to relieve themselves in bottles beside the bus or were brought to a nearby terminal.

This narrative of James Cai, a medical professional and New Jersey’s first COVID-19 patient, is moving and brilliantly reported. We’re introduced to Cai as he experiences symptoms in early March, when doctors on the East Coast still viewed the virus “as an ominous but distant threat.” We’re there alongside him when he realizes, from a tweet he reads on TV about a man at a hospital, that he may be New Jersey’s first COVID-19 patient (“Please, God, don’t let that be me, he thought”). With advice and help from Chinese and Chinese-American doctors, and the use of tools like WeChat and Twitter to share knowledge and call attention to his case, Cai is able to receive the right care. It’s a gripping and touching read with a positive ending, though reveals just how much it takes for a person, even one with a lot of support and resources, to advocate for themselves.

Cai hoped the remdesivir might help. The hospital had made its own request. But he knew that getting approval for compassionate use — which required the manufacturer’s approval as well as F.D.A. approval — could take time, and he was worried that it would be too late. That day, Huang reached out to every Gilead representative he knew and called on all his doctor friends to do the same. His former supervising physician at Mount Sinai, Paul Lee, had already written an unsuccessful email to an associate director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Cai’s behalf to try to get him access to the drug. Huang posted on a large WeChat group for Chinese and Chinese-American cardiologists: “My name is Yili, great to meet everyone, unfortunately on this occasion,” he introduced himself. “I usually don’t post, but my good friend, only 32, health care provider, became this first case in New Jersey. Please help me with some inputs.” With Cai’s permission, he included a photo of Cai’s CT scan. He also forwarded the scans to another friend, Felix Yang, a cardiac electrophysiologist.

What Happened in Room 10? (Katie Engelhart, The California Sunday Magazine)

Engelhart’s investigation into the outbreak at Life Care Center of Kirkland, the nursing home just east of Seattle that became known as the early epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S., is an essential, emotionally painful read. Forty-six people that lived in or were linked to the facility died, and, at one point during the outbreak, there were 129 cases, including 81 residents and nearly 50 staff and visitors. Engelhart asks: Could these people have been saved? “The debate now,” she writes, “is whether all that death can be explained by biology and demographics — or whether, in spite of biology and demographics, more nursing-home residents could have been spared.” Her reporting, focused on the trajectories of two patients and roommates, Helen and Twilla, is incredibly in-depth, as is her examination of the larger problems in America’s nursing homes, the government’s response to COVID-19 at all levels, and the temporary solution of “sequester[ing] away the old people” and hoping for the best. The illustrated animations by Matt Bollinger and portraits by Jovelle Tamayo add another layer of storytelling.

Montgomery had been shocked to learn that Life Care, of all places, had the virus. The facility was one of the best she had worked with, and she thought its infection-prevention nurse was as good as they come. But when she arrived at the nursing home, she was startled to see that not everyone was wearing a mask. Some nursing aides didn’t even know how to use PPE properly.

Between March 3 and March 5, at the height of the Life Care outbreak, there were no doctors in the nursing home to evaluate and treat the dozens of residents who needed to be assessed — and officials at the county, state, and federal level knew it.

The Body Collectors of the Coronavirus Pandemic (Jonathan Blitzer, The New Yorker)

In the first six weeks of the outbreak in New York City, 33 people died of COVID-19 every hour, and workers in hospital morgues and funeral homes struggled to keep up with bodies, lacking storage space, supplies, and equipment. For Sherman’s, a funeral home in Brooklyn, a “busy week” in the before times meant handling about 12 funerals, but in the first week of April, they handled and transported more than 120 bodies. Blitzer’s piece is grim and harrowing — hard to read at times, but an important look at the often forgotten work of last responders.

Kasler and his co-workers were also concerned about supplies. They were running low on personal protective equipment—masks, gowns, and gloves. Each house call or hospital visit now required at least three pairs of gloves and two gowns. Zambito and the others needed to shed each item as it came into contact with a contaminated body. A standard pickup, she told me, required one set of P.P.E. to retrieve the body, followed by another set to put the body in the van, and yet another to take the body out of the van and bring it into the mortuary. Sherman had begun contacting funeral homes in other states to see if he could buy supplies from them. He was looking for disinfectant sprays and Clorox wipes. A cousin of his, in California, had ordered some of the items wholesale and arranged for them to be shipped to Sherman in New York. There was also a shortage of caskets. “They can’t make them quick enough,” Sherman told me.

They Depended on Their Parents for Everything. Then the Virus Took Both. (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)

I was moved by many beautifully written human-interest stories at the Washington Post, including Greg Jaffe’s portrait of families living in motels outside of Disney World in Florida and other heart-breaking accounts in the “Voices from the Pandemic” series.

About eight years ago, the Ismael siblings — Nash, 20; Nadeen, 18; and Nanssy, 13 — fled Iraq with their parents, eventually settling in Michigan, which has a large Chaldean community. John Woodrow Cox shares their story as they struggle with the loss of their mother, Nada Naisan, and their father, Nameer Ayram, who died 20 days apart from COVID-19. The loss and sorrow that Cox captures in these conversations and scenes are palpable, while Salwan Georges’ dim-lit photographs of both intimate and ordinary moments in these young people’s lives are haunting. (Another story from Cox, about a couple who lost their daughter in the Sandy Hook shooting, is also a poignant read.)

At last, the stone arch over the entrance to White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery came into view. The girls arrived first, stepping out of a car into a clear-sky morning, just shy of 70 degrees. They walked onto the grass of a long, narrow section of memorial plaques, searching for No. 222 among the oval-shaped metal markers pressed into the ground.

“I’m not sure which one,” Nanssy told her sister.

“Maybe that one over there,” Nadeen replied, looking toward a distant section of unearthed dirt.

“Here it is,” Nanssy said, pointing.

And there before them was not one grave, but two.

The Man in the Iron Lung (Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, The Guardian)

Paul Alexander contracted polio when he was 6 years old and, while he recovered from the initial infection all those years ago, he became paralyzed from the neck down. Now, in his mid-70s, he is one of only two people in the U.S. that still uses an iron lung. McRobbie traces his extraordinary life, from the 18 torturous months he spent in the polio ward — rows and rows of metal canisters, each encasing a child’s limp body — to growing up and working toward an independent life: going to college, getting a law degree, falling in love, self-publishing a memoir. Today, Alexander considers the parallels between the polio and the COVID-19 pandemics, and while he’s scared and knows he’s very vulnerable, he tries to stay positive.

The next 18 months were torture. Although he couldn’t talk because of the tracheotomy, he could hear the cries of other children in pain. He lay for hours in his own waste because he couldn’t tell the staff he needed to be cleaned. He nearly drowned in his own mucus. His parents visited almost every day, but his existence was unrelentingly boring. He and the other children tried to communicate, making faces at each other, but, Paul said: “Every time I’d make a friend, they’d die.”

Though this virus, if he gets it, will likely kill him, life hasn’t changed dramatically for Paul since the start of the pandemic. He hasn’t been able to venture outside of his lung for more than five minutes in years. As one of his friends told me: “It’s not a strain for him, it’s his life. This is Mr Shelter-in-Place.” I asked Paul if he is worried about Covid-19. “Sure, sure,” he said. Then he added: “Well – I don’t sit around and worry about it. I’m dying a lot. It doesn’t make any difference.”

This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic (Zeynep Tufekci, The Atlantic)

Tufekci’s piece is science writing at its best, tackling and explaining dense and technical concepts to a general audience. How does COVID-19 spread? What is R0? What is k? What elements are present for super-spreading events to occur? It’s a fascinating look into overdispersion and clusters.

To return to the mysteries of this pandemic, what did happen early on to cause such drastically different trajectories in otherwise similar places? Why haven’t our usual analytic tools—case studies, multi-country comparisons—given us better answers? It’s not intellectually satisfying, but because of the overdispersion and its stochasticity, there may not be an explanation beyond that the worst-hit regions, at least initially, simply had a few unlucky early super-spreading events. It wasn’t just pure luck: Dense populations, older citizens, and congregate living, for example, made cities around the world more susceptible to outbreaks compared with rural, less dense places and those with younger populations, less mass transit, or healthier citizenry. But why Daegu in February and not Seoul, despite the two cities being in the same country, under the same government, people, weather, and more? As frustrating at it may be, sometimes, the answer is merely where Patient 31 and the megachurch she attended happened to be.

“It’s a National Tragedy”: What a Devastating Covid-19 Outbreak at a California Slaughterhouse Reveals about the Federal Government’s Failed Pandemic Response (Nick Roberts and Rosa Amanda Tuirán; The Counter)

As of December 8, at least 1,231 meatpacking and food-processing plants have confirmed cases of COVID-19, including over 75,000 meatpacking workers. At least 340 have died. But federal and state regulatory agencies like Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have not done much to hold meatpackers, like the One World Beef slaughterhouse in Brawley, California, accountable. This investigation at The Counter exposes the lack of COVID-19-specific safety regulations in these facilities, the culture of fear in these workplaces, and, ultimately, the industry’s focus on profit over people, even during a pandemic.

Providing personal protective equipment and administering temperature screens were important steps taken by One World Beef. But the experts we spoke to for this story detailed numerous other steps that meatpacking facilities can take to make their operations immediately more safe for workers. These include slowing down the trim line, spacing workers out sufficiently, improving ventilation, telling workers when they might have been exposed to the virus, not incentivizing coming to work every single day, and providing routine testing for all workers, especially new hires. One World Beef, according to the workers we interviewed, did not take any of these critical steps and, in some cases, did the opposite.

The company’s approach to testing turned out to be especially problematic.

“We tested between 300 and 400 people from the facility on that first day,” said Dr. Brian Tyson, the owner of All Valley Urgent Care.

Though this was an encouraging step, many employees were confused by the test that was administered. Rather than the widely publicized nasal swab test, employees received a finger pinprick combined with pulmonary X-rays. The employee confusion was justified: As it turned out, the testing method did not measure if employees were actively infected.

The First Shot: Inside the Covid Vaccine Fast Track (Brooke Jarvis, Wired)

“Twenty-five micrograms of fluid, the first and fastest hope for stopping a pandemic that had been officially declared just five days before, diffused into the muscle of his right arm.” This arm belonged to Neal Browning, an engineer in Seattle who was one of the first people in the U.S. to receive a dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Jarvis’ deep-dive into the race for a vaccine and the history of vaccine creation and development is engaging and, at times, unexpectedly entertaining (our innate immune system is compared a number of times to a tantrum-throwing Rambo baby).

Even with the head start, beginning the trials so quickly required a sprint. The news about the virus’s spread, and its effects on those it infected, kept getting scarier. It was soon clear that more was riding on the vaccine than anyone had initially realized. Within two weeks, scientists at Moderna, without being asked, were staying late, working weekends. Corbett’s team started growing spike proteins and stocking freezers with vials. They immunized mice with the vaccine, then tested their blood for antibodies. A clinical batch was ready by February 7, tested and shipped by February 24, and green-lit for human testing by March 4. (It was a coincidence that the human trials began in what had, by March, become the first hot spot in the US; Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute had been selected to conduct them in late January.) There was never a singular moment, says Hoge, when he realized the researchers had begun an 18-month marathon. Instead, “it felt like every day, can you run faster, can you run faster, can you run faster?”

A Pandemic Is Not A War (Eve Fairbanks, HuffPost)

“We’ve never experienced a mass disaster in universal isolation before,” writes Fairbanks. “There is no precedent for it.” This thoughtful piece explores how people compare the pandemic to war (the virus as enemy, health care workers as foot soldiers) as a way to understand or cope with it. Fairbanks talks with four men about their wartime experiences during the Rwandan genocide and civil wars in Somalia, Syria, and Sierra Leone and explains that the reach for metaphors by those who have not experienced war, and the show of bravado and strength, especially from our world’s leaders, sets us up for even greater suffering. One man Fairbanks spoke with, Nuruddin Farah from Somalia, said our use of the war analogy reveals a “‘poverty of the imagination’ about the varieties of pain,” ultimately hindering us from learning new lessons. Fairbanks offers a very wide view, yet makes you contemplate your own personal and individual response to this pandemic.

One of the points of reaching for this analogy is to deflect attention from epic missteps. We should not be experiencing widespread shortages of critical supplies or a total lack of coherent strategy from the U.S. government, as if coronavirus were an ambush, a “Pearl Harbor,” which it wasn’t. “Hindsight is a luxury none of us have in the heat of battle,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday, to excuse his administration’s multiple failures to heed expert warnings and shut down schools and businesses. Nuruddin Farah, a writer from Somalia, lamented that “the only reason nurses and doctors are described as ‘warriors’ right now is because some politicians have failed in providing these doctors and nurses with the equipment that they need.”

But what about ordinary people who reach for the “war” analogy? I told Nuruddin that some friends of mine also sounded relieved to use it. One friend in Seattle told me that he finally felt he could connect to his grandfather’s experience during World War II. He had always suspected that, by comparison, he had led too frivolous and privileged a life; that he’d never been tested, never been forced to be truly courageous or heroic.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.