Writerland, Chapter 35: Tracking Covid: A Reporter's Contradictions

Like millions of Americans, I lost most sources of income when the pandemic began last March. At the time, I didn’t have a full-time job. I held several odd gigs, including freelancing for the Review, editing other journalists’ work, babysitting and selling eyeglasses at random New York fairs. I was making the most money from babysitting. And I was embarrassed about this. I was twenty-five, with a masters in journalism and I was only able to pay rent because I made $450 a week taking care of a precocious third grader. In retrospect, this was a silly way to feel. Too many people starting out in journalism spend too much time thinking about what others are doing or what they might be thinking about them. I wish I could have told myself: Natasha, the others aren’t even thinking about you.

New York City, and the world, changed that March for reasons we all know. I couldn’t babysit anymore, I stopped hearing from the people I was editing for, there were no more fairs. I spent weeks and then months trapped inside my Brooklyn apartment with three roommates. On the rare days I went out to get fresh air, I was masked up, with gloves and clothes I took off the second I got back home. We planned out every meal we ate so that we only had to grocery shop twice a month. Every surface was scrubbed with Lysol wipes at the end of the day. There were no more guests. There was one pandemic dog. In the early days, I was woken up by sirens that somehow hadn’t stopped by the time I was going to sleep. Everyone watched Tiger King. Everyone got their hands on a sourdough starter. Everyone clapped and banged at 7 p.m. Everyone who could afford to leave the city left. I resented them deeply. But I’m sure I would have done the same if I had the option to leave. I could go on and on about how the start of the pandemic was for me, but those of us who have made it to today all know more or less how it went.     

Mentally, I was often overwhelmed, trying to keep level. My room was tiny. I had moved in right before the pandemic and my roommates were lovely but they were strangers. I spent hours crying in my room and hours trying to make my face look like I hadn’t cried so that I could leave my room. I tried to meditate. I tried to do Yoga With Adriene (my room was too small). I read. I watched reality TV. My journalism aspirations slipped away. I had no drive, no inspiration. I applied for, and received, unemployment benefits as a freelancer. Mostly, I felt so fucking guilty. I wasn’t doing anything. I had no purpose. But I was alive. I hadn’t lost anyone. I wasn’t putting my life at risk every day to help others. I was so privileged, so lucky. And I was so bored. And I hated feeling all those feelings.

By the summer, New Yorkers had relaxed a bit. The lines for covid testing got shorter, groceries were no longer sanitized before going in the fridge, the weather was warm and parks were packed with outdoor gatherings. Covid was still with us but not like it had been in the spring. In July, everything changed for me. I got an email from a former grad school professor asking if I had time to do freelance work. Of course I did. We got on the phone and he explained that the New York Times was tracking coronavirus cases and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. They had a team of freelancers who worked collecting the data, and they were thinking of bringing in some more. I expressed my interest, although I didn’t think it would lead to anything. I had a phone interview and later that week I was hired on a freelance basis. It all happened so quickly. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. And then I panicked. I had been told the work would be difficult and require the utmost precision. I would be working with data, with numbers. This was something I didn’t have a lot of experience with. My focus in grad school had been on crafting longform narratives, not data journalism. 

I was trained on my first day. It was exciting and overwhelming. The spreadsheets and the numbers gave me anxiety. And the fact that everything had to be done remotely scared me into thinking I would struggle to do the work correctly. But over time, I was able to relax and let go of my anxieties and focus on the task at hand. I had joined a team of journalists from all over the nation tracking coronavirus cases and deaths in nursing homes and on college campuses. We also tracked coronavirus clusters across the U.S. It was demanding work. I spent eight hours, five days a week glued to my computer. I bought blue light glasses for my exhausted eyes. I got a folding desk so that I didn’t have to work from my bed. I started to see my name in the sea of names under the Times’ coronavirus maps. I was so proud of us. I felt so much better about myself because I was doing something. I was being useful. I was a tiny, tiny part of a giant team of individuals contributing to the world’s understanding of this new and deadly virus.

My entire life soon became coronavirus. I woke up and went to work in the same room, counting new cases and new deaths for hours. The numbers were always higher than the day before, sometimes shockingly so. I became everyone’s go-to person for coronavirus-related issues or questions. Is it okay if I go to the gym? What’s the current turnaround time for a covid test at CityMD? My throat hurts, do you think it’s covid? Can I get a haircut? Is it really that bad? I answered them all. Sometimes I was happy to. Sometimes I was exhausted. But I was eager to be useful. There was no escape from coronavirus. It was (and still is) impossible to have a conversation with anyone and not mention the pandemic. Coronavirus had seeped into every aspect of life. When I tried to escape into television or movies, I found myself questioning why people weren’t wearing masks in crowded scenes, only to remember that what I was watching wasn’t real life, and it was also the past.  

Counting deaths will get to you in one way or another, no matter how stable you are. It wasn’t easy in the summer, when so many people started acting as if the pandemic was over, but on my computer, I was just seeing cases and deaths increase. I spent time on the phone yelling at my parents, telling them they couldn’t do the things they wanted to do. I silently judged friends who dined indoors. Summer turned to fall and the notion that vaccines could be coming finally became a reality. My team began tracking vaccine distribution, administration and eligibility. I cannot put into words how incredible it felt to track something good and positive instead of sadness. As vaccine eligibility opened up, I made appointments for family and friends and patiently waited my turn. And then, I left the job. I was hired in a permanent position at the Times, this one with a focus on editing. Of course, I was overjoyed to get a full-time job. But a part of me wanted to see this through.

There was a time this summer when we thought it might end. For some time, I thought that coronavirus would one day become an event we spoke of similarly to how we speak of 9/11. We all remember where we were on 9/11. I thought perhaps in the future we would all speak about our year of coronavirus, where we were and how it was for us, and then move on to some other subject. But this nightmare is not over and seeing coronavirus reporting through to the end might not ever be an option. Coronavirus is now its own beat, there is so much to cover and I don’t think it will ever go away completely, it will simply be, exist as a part of our collective reality. I do hope I’m wrong about that.

I learned so much in the year I spent reporting on the pandemic. I realized that there are things that can never be taught in a classroom, but they can be learned on the job. I discovered that for me, graduate school paid off in the connections I made. I learned that so much in the journalism world is so random and seems to come down to luck and who you know, which isn’t really fair. I fell back in love with reporting. What I have described as hard work also gave me purpose and drive. I realize that I have spent this entry talking about my experience gaining employment during a pandemic where millions are struggling to find work and unemployment benefits have run out for so many. I feel guilty. My imposter syndrome always comes back to haunt me. This pandemic has taught me that you can be happy and devastated simultaneously.

I remember what an undergraduate journalism professor of mine used to say about journalism: history’s rough draft. What an honor it was to be a small part of a massive effort in writing that draft. And how strange and sad it is that most of the things we write and report on are tragedies, with no cure. Except to record them for whoever comes next.