The stories I’ve been working on recently

I’m yet to part with my lockdown locks.

It’s been a strange year so far, hasn’t it. Since at least late January, I had been aware of news stories about the new coronavirus then causing havoc in Wuhan. However, over the next month or so I largely stuck to pitching stories on other topics that I had been researching previously, such as antimicrobial resistance and wildlife conservation.

By March, the pandemic (as we began calling it that month) had emerged as a gigantic problem for the whole world, not just China. A thing that would upturn life as we knew it and directly impact millions of families, including my own.

The pandemic is far from over and news about Covid-19 still feels unpredictable, if not quite as intense as it did in April. I’m taking a couple of days off in August and have a moment now to reflect. I thought, “Why not blog about it”. Blogging’s a form of therapy, right?

What follows is a snapshot of my working life over the past five months. I’m just one of thousands of journalists who have found themselves responding in their own way to the pandemic, aiming to be creative and informative at a time of great pressure and confusion. I won’t complain about any of it — I know how lucky I’ve been to have had the work. But it has been challenging.

One of the most important things to do as a freelancer is to keep taking on new challenges. You generally have no-one to push you except you. So for anyone who’s interested, here’s what it’s been like:

The first thing I wrote that was vaguely related to the pandemic was a feature for BBC Worklife about the “secret” offices that large businesses rent so that they can have them standing by, sitting empty, just waiting to be used in the event that some disaster strikes and employees need to be moved from their normal place of work. I’d visited facilities like this in a previous professional life and, as it turned out, companies were indeed readying them as Covid-19 swept in.

After that, I worked on a string of stories for Wired.co.uk about how the UK was responding to the coronavirus crisis (tl;dr = not great). For instance, I spoke to healthcare workers and lab staff processing tests about serious issues with the national response:

Then came another report for Wired.co.uk on a different— and ongoing — concern. That social distancing had driven a wedge between people and cancer diagnoses/treatment.

“[…] the number of urgent referrals for early diagnosis […] has plummeted,” one researcher told me.

It was important to apply scrutiny to the UK government’s handling of the situation when writing two briefings for The BMJ — on contact tracing and antibody testing. I spoke to many scientists who had strong criticisms to make of the approach taken by authorities.

There was a locally inspired piece as well — an in-depth account of how manual contact tracing had been rapidly restarted in Northern Ireland (The BMJ), ahead of the three other constituent parts of the UK. I explained how, by mid-May, tracers were reaching almost all positive cases and their contacts within a day or two.

Around the same time, more and more information was becoming available about the biological structure of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 — a new and detailed area of science for me, but I was keen to dig in. I’m glad I did — I have learned so much.

I’ve now written several stories for The Scientist about the virological analysis being done by fast-working researchers seeking to understand what makes SARS-CoV-2 tick. As is now clear, the virus is exceptionally well-adapted to infect humans:

Epidemiology has, unsurprisingly, generated story after story (and, from some, opinion after opinion…). For instance, take the problems faced by researchers trying to track the spread of Covid-19 in Brazil (The Scientist), the wildly varying estimates for how many people got sick in Wuhan back in January (The Scientist), or what we learned about the disease from specific case studies, such as the Diamond Princess cruise ship (The BMJ).

It was amazing to hear from the scientists who were among the first in the West to probe reports that a new, dangerous disease was spreading in China. They cancelled their New Year’s Eve plans to investigate, as I explained for OneZero, while the rest of us partied.

Sewage has also, I freely admit, fascinated me. Specifically, wastewater surveillance for Covid-19 —in which scientists scour sewage for traces of SARS-CoV-2 RNA. I revealed one of Spain’s programmes to do this (The Scientist) and the start of the UK’s official sampling (The BMJ).

One aspect of the pandemic I’ve tried to represent is how it has affected people’s everyday lives. For BBC News, I wrote about friends who resorted to meeting up online via multiplayer video games at the height of lockdown — and the hundreds who have turned to Zoom meetings and streaming their hobbies only to be frustrated by webcam shortages.

It hasn’t all been Covid-19, though. I’ve interspersed the above reporting with blissful diversions into completely unrelated topics, including the discovery of the deepest deep sea octopus (Hakai Magazine) and experiments to see whether it is possible to reliably track locust swarms on radar (OneZero).

Almost all of these stories are of the same format — they’re not quick news pieces and they’re not long reads. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For me, anyway, I think writing these stories this way (some news, some context, some exploration) has been a means of grappling with complex information — and processing it on behalf of the reader. “News features” and similar formats are great at a time like this because they offer more than a quick, bewildering hit, but they don’t ask too much of the reader, either. Not that great long reads can’t be written right now — I just think you have to choose your battles.

In general, like most people, I’ve found working during the pandemic more stressful than usual. I’ve tried to adjust to that by taking some time off here and there, avoiding Twitter as much possible (i.e. not nearly enough), speaking to the people I know are genuine friends, and writing about the things that I think the wider public would want to know about.

If I’ve done anything that enables someone to understand what the virus is or how it spreads, what scientists actually do or even just help them feel that whatever they’re going through, they’re not alone, then I’ll have achieved something beyond a list of stories for my dusty portfolio.

In any case, the best stories are — always — yet to come. Onwards. And, hopefully, upwards.

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Chris Baraniuk

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.