The Essential COVID-19 Reading List

Ed Yong, staff writer at The Atlantic, shares some of the stories that informed his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the pandemic.

Ed Yong saw this coming. In 2018, a century after the 1918 flu pandemic killed some 675,000 Americans and millions more abroad, Yong wrote a feature suggesting that the next pandemic was inevitable, and that the United States was “disturbingly vulnerable.” In early 2020, as the novel coronavirus raced around the world, Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, returned early from book leave to cover the virus. Everything played out almost exactly as he said it would. Throughout much of 2020, tens of thousands of Americans were falling ill every day, medical supply chains linking back to China and India were breaking down, hospitals were over capacity and underfunded, and the White House under President Donald Trump was promoting conspiracy theories and claiming victory over the virus. Today, COVID-19 has claimed nearly 610,000 American lives.

Yong’s reporting over the first year of the pandemic — somehow both disconcerting in its content and calming in its clarity and comprehensiveness — earned him the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. He’s continued to investigate what the virus is doing to our countries, our communities, and our bodies as the pandemic stretches on into year two. Here, The Postscript has gathered an essential reading list for understanding COVID-19 and what comes next, including recommendations from Yong for the writing that he found indispensable.

I. How the Pandemic Defeated America

This feature from the September 2020 issue of The Atlantic contains what Poynter called the “sentence of the year,” defining the many ways Trump himself exacerbated the effects of the virus. But Trump was a “comorbidity,” not a cause, and here Yong catalogs the fragilities throughout American leadership, health care, and social contracts that together led to the nation’s utter failure to contain the spread of the virus. These are all lessons for a new administration facing stagnating vaccination rates, new viral variants, and a populace that’s burnt out economically and psychologically.

“Normal led to this,” Yong says. “We long to return to the way things were, but we have to deeply, viscerally understand that the world we existed in made it all-too-possible for a pandemic to occur, made it harder for us to contain it, and left countless groups of people vulnerable to it.”

II. The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic Is Shifting

Here Yong chronicles the inherent conflict between American individualism and public health in the pandemic era. Rather than remaining united against the virus, the vaccinated in the United States have been “liberated” from collective protections such as masking and social distancing, while the unvaccinated, who Yong notes are disproportionately from disadvantaged communities, are left to fend for themselves. But treating risk as an individual problem doesn’t make it one: the longer the coronavirus circulates in unvaccinated populations, the more time it has to evolve around the vaccines. For now, those defenses are largely holding against increasingly transmissible strains like the Delta variant. The inequalities in the vaccine rollout mean many Americans are moving on, while the country’s most socially vulnerable communities are still suffering.

“What is America’s goal,” Yong asks, “to end the pandemic, or to suppress it to a level where it mostly plagues communities that privileged individuals can ignore?”

III. What Happens When Americans Can Finally Exhale

What is the most important thing for Americans to know about the COVID-19 pandemic? “It’s not over,” Yong says. It’s not just COVID variants that threaten the health of people around the globe.

Across the country, but especially in vulnerable and minority communities, Americans lost loved ones, jobs, homes, and a year or more of their lives to the virus. Millions are living with grief, survivor’s guilt, and the economic and existential anxiety that accompanies a disaster of this scale. Trust in authority, community, and a sense of belonging all make people more resilient in the face of trauma. But, Yong writes, the pandemic has “eroded the very social trust and connections that allow communities to recover from catastrophes.”

“Even if 100 percent of people got vaccinated tomorrow and all cases disappear, the lasting scars of COVID-19 will take years and decades to heal,” Yong says.

Ed Yong’s COVID-19 Reading List

The Essentials is a recurring column that introduces readers to a subject, concept, or notable individual’s work, with expert recommendations for what to read, watch, and/or listen to.We’ll get you up to speed in minutes, but provide resources for taking a deeper dive, when it works for you.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Watch: 76 Days

In the first documentary film to emerge from the pandemic era, filmmakers Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and an anonymous journalist put viewers into the apocalyptic scenes from hospitals in Wuhan, China, with health care workers as they learned to care for patients amid the chaos.

Watch: Totally Under Control

The film by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger serves as a “report card” for the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, juxtaposing scenes of the president and administration officials playing down the risks with the voices of whistleblowers and critics who called out the government’s blindspots from early on. There’s no satisfying conclusion here — for one thing, filming wrapped before Trump himself contracted COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. But also because it’s still unclear what, if anything, America will learn from the mistakes made in the first year of the pandemic.

Listen: America Dissected: Coronavirus

In this weekly podcast from Crooked Media, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and epidemiologist, interviews other experts and breaks down how science, culture, and policy all influenced the path of the pandemic in America — and charts a better way forward.

Meet: About the Author

Kate Wheeling is a freelance journalist based in California covering the environment, climate change, and our relationship to each other and to the natural world. You can find her work in Smithsonian, The Nation, The New Republic, Outside, and others.