Rules for Covering Omicron Better
What we should have learned about reporting on the pandemic
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
The Omicron variant is a challenge to public health officials and scientists, to political leaders and also to journalists. Herewith, some early thoughts on how to cover it effectively, and how to learn from some of our own missteps over the last two years.
This is primarily a scientific issue, not a political one
Simply put, there will be time and basis for assessing the politics later, particularly as there are no elections of great consequence in the US for 11 months. One of the biggest failings of cable news especially, and Washington coverage generally, is to provide play-by-play color commentary focused on the effects of disparate real world events on our politics, as if it is a never-ending sports event. I know I can’t talk cable TV folks out of this pernicious construct, but we can hope they might bear in mind that the Omicron “game” is in its opening minutes and will remain so for more than a couple of more news cycles.
Just as this virus wasn’t the flu, and Delta wasn’t the original virus, watch any assumption that this is just Delta-plus
In these first days, it’s encouraging that officials seem to have learned from earlier possible turning points in the pandemic to admit the uncertainty that necessarily prevails until crucial facts are known. Many in the press have also shown admirable restraint—highlighting what we don’t know, which, so far, outweighs what we do. It will be important, and challenging, for both officials and the press to maintain this focus on uncertainty about remaining unknowns as some aspects clarify.
Relatedly—and this may be the greatest lesson of the pandemic in terms of communication with the public-- it will be essential to maintain complexity in messaging if that is what the facts dictate, that is if some risks, or risks for some, rise while others do not. The press needs to work harder to avoid the reductionist impulse to report that telling some people to take greater precautions or limiting some activities or imposing some rules is “muddled.” It may actually be sensible.
Since Trumpian misinformation received its electoral reward and shuffled off stage, the largest flaw in official communication about the pandemic has been succumbing to the temptation to favor simple messages over accurate ones. If the government has finally begun to figure out that it needs to trust the people with ambiguity, the press should do the same.
As always, watch your biases
It’s important to note, for instance, that the South African supply of vaccines exceeded demand before the variant was recognized. Yes, vaccine inequity is a powerful reality, but it’s equally true that vaccine hesitancy is also global, not just an American rural/GOP thing. Having been fortunate enough to resume vacationing, we personally saw large anti-vax demos on beautiful Saturdays in Montreal in August and Florence in October. Just last month, there were similar rallies across Australia.
Be skeptical of official actions, as we are supposed to be with everything
For instance, anyone paying attention has known for more than 18 months that flight bans are highly imperfect instruments at best, perhaps buying time, but also hurting economies, reducing international trust and undermining needed cooperation. Airport screening for disease was known even before 2020 to be ineffective.
What this means is that we need to call out fuzzy (racist?) thinking like that of the British government not requiring testing for vaccinated people flying into the country, and then flipping overnight to the other extreme of banning flights from 10 African countries while still not requiring pre-entry testing from vaccinated travelers from at least 10 European countries where Omicron has also already been detected. (We now know the variant was in at least three of these European countries before the South African announcement.)
Among those of whom we should be skeptical are business leaders, including those of the vaccine manufacturers, who have done such great work during the pandemic, but who also are still running profit-maximizing enterprises. When they speak, we need to examine the full range of their motivations.
Testing remains key
At this point, this is particularly true of genomic surveillance, especially as the variant spreads around the world. I would love to see reporting about why, many months after we were caught napping by Delta, the Washington Post reported that the US had only conducted genomic screening of less than four percent of positive test results when all five of the Scandinavian countries were over ten percent.
Strikingly, it may be that such an investigation could reveal that the problem has been resolved, at least in significant part. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the FDA, indicated at a Harvard School of Public Health forum yesterday that such sequencing in this country has now reached 20%, five times the level indicated in Sunday’s Post article, and sequencing has certainly increased in recent months. This is a fundamental question on which it’s frankly shocking that we still seem to lack authoritative data. Officials need to do better, but so do journalists.
What’s the bottom line?
COVID may or may not yet be epidemiologically endemic, but it is surely, after 23 months, a fact of life. What will drive large impacts on daily life and the economy, at least in the US, is reasonable fears of death or serious illness, not cases or even symptomatic cases. You may disagree with the choices we have made as a society, but it’s clear that most of this country is determined to resume business as usual (while vaccinated and masked indoors) until and unless the rates of serious illness and death rise again to levels seen only occasionally and only in some areas over the last two years.
So the key issue, and the biggest one on which we should be focused in the days ahead, will not be whether the virus more easily evades the vaccine, if it does, but whether the rates of serious illness rise, and— potentially a new factor— whether the new therapeutics can blunt that effect at scale.
Look out for second and third-order effects
It will be years before we have fully sorted out the impact of the pandemic on our way of life, and on everything from remote work to attitudes toward government spending. But it’s not too soon to see that some indirect effects have already been transformative. There will be more.
Here are a few new possibilities we should be considering in coverage:
If Omicron materially dampens economic activity, it will likely also dampen inflation.
Ditto the easing of pressures against government spending, probably including the President’s Build Back Better legislation.
MRNA vaccines are important new technology. If, in the worst case, we need widespread closures as we spend three to five months awaiting new vaccines, pressures will likely quickly accelerate against “profiteering” and possibly for much more direct public control of when and to whom the vaccines are deployed.
Finally, in case it needs to be repeated, we should watch even more closely for the unexpected, ready to further adapt our thinking and our coverage. Three weeks before Christmas, the outlook for the course of the pandemic is far more clouded than it appeared three weeks before Thanksgiving. What should surprise us most is that we are, at this late date, surprised by that.
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