Bringing pandemic preparedness alive without sparking fear

Photo: Defence Images via Flickr

When the Atlantic’s Ed Yong began thinking about a story on health security, he realized he needed a basic definition for a core point of the story — what is emergency health preparedness?

“Something dawned on me,” Yong said. “I didn’t really understand what exactly preparedness meant. I had been writing the word for a long time and doing stories on it, but it felt a bit abstract and nebulous.”

He began asking academics and public health officials what it takes for a health system to be truly prepared for a health emergency, who the key people are and how much it can cost to be ready for a terrible flu epidemic, or something rarer like Ebola.

“Ultimately, it boils down to … people and things … A nurse who spots unusual symptoms, to a line in the U.S. federal budget for” emergency preparedness, said Yong, who went on to write, “The Next Plague is Coming. Is America Ready?” for the July/August 2018 issue of the Atlantic.

In a new “How I Did It” Q&A for AHCJ, Yong describes some of his behind-the-scenes thinking about the story, which led him to span half the Earth — from the Democratic Republic of Congo to a hospital system in Nebraska. He discovered that answers to questions about preparedness are more nuanced than saying, “yes, we are prepared” or “no, we are not.”

On one hand, the U.S. does watch carefully for an out-of-control flu outbreak but on the other, the federal government has reduced funding to train medical personnel to deal with an outbreak. The nation has one of the best health care systems in the world, but its hospitals have to look overseas to obtain necessities, such as ventilators, making them vulnerable to higher costs.

“It’s like a chain — one weak link and the whole thing falls apart,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Yong. “You need no weak links.”

Adding to the complication is that the U.S., like the rest of the world, tends to have amnesia when it comes to serious infectious disease outbreaks. People panic during an outbreak, then forget about it when it’s over.

“The reason we aren’t as prepared as we should be is a deep psychologically rooted one, which is that people are generally bad at thinking about abstract risks,” Yong says.

Yong gave his story greater emotional structure by telling the story of Ebola survivors in Congo and focusing on U.S. emergency health workers who are focused on emergency health preparations.

“There is a consistent emotional arc. It is roughly, ‘things are bad,’ ‘things are really bad,’ ‘things are very, very bad,’ ‘actually, there is a little hope,’ ‘but the hope might be dashed because we are a bit dumb,’ ‘we could not be dumb,’ ‘except we don’t have the best people in charge,’  ‘but then a bit of hope in the end,’ so it has a bit of up and down feeling to it,” says Yong, adding that he now tries to bring that structure to all scientific stories he reports.

“I think every bit of reporting that people can do on this, whether it’s for a magazine, or week-by-week beat stuff, it all matters. It all adds up,” Yong said.

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