I Bought Into American Exceptionalism Without Realizing It
After we settle into a new normal, we shouldn’t forget the lessons of the past year
As I look back on the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I can’t help but wonder why many of us weren’t more unsettled at the start of it all.
In early January 2020, my editor messaged me about the reports of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness out of Wuhan, China. As a science journalist, I’m careful to avoid hype in my writing. I wondered if I’d do more harm than good reporting on the outbreak. But my editor had been a foreign correspondent for TIME magazine in China when SARS was first identified in late 2002. He had reason to be concerned. My initial reaction was not exactly indifference, but I wasn’t particularly worried either.
My attitude started to change when the city of Wuhan went into complete lockdown on January 23. The pictures of empty streets were haunting.
Still, like many Americans, I never thought a pandemic would happen here. Ground zero was thousands of miles away, and after all, we had beaten back other infectious threats — SARS, MERS, Ebola. I should have known better.
More than a decade ago, as a health care reporter for a business newspaper, I wrote about a company that won a multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Army to develop an Ebola vaccine. There was no active Ebola outbreak in 2010, so no one was paying attention to it. Of course, when the virus reemerged in West Africa in 2014, researchers raced to develop drugs and vaccines as cases mounted. I tracked this progress, too, as a reporter for a biotech newsletter.
I remember how afraid Americans were of Ebola. In November 2014, I started working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a contractor. I arrived on the Bethesda, Maryland, campus just a month after nurse Nina Pham was treated and released from NIH after recovering from Ebola. Pham had contracted the virus while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who became the first U.S. Ebola patient. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), cared for Pham himself, and I was working down the hall…