covering the pandemic

It was late January when I first learned about what has now become the world’s main concern, fear and topic of conversation. “This is going to be bad,” a long-time friend and former newsroom colleague warned me over the phone. She was already afraid of what COVID-19 would do to our lives. I dismissed her concerns as exaggerative. This far-away virus she talked about was nowhere close to my front door.

The next month, I was assigned to put together a report for the 11pm newscast . It was from an interview another reporter had done over a video call with a South Florida woman who was teaching English in South Korea. In an urgent and seemingly worried tone she described isolation in her tiny apartment, as everyone was dealing with a massive outbreak of the coronavirus. It was clear that outside had become a place she feared.

Then, I heard from some family members in Italy. They were terrified. I started to think about the implications of what more of the world was dealing with, and I started to think my friend wasn’t so off base during our phone chat the month before.

By March, I was assigned to interview an infectious disease specialist about the virus after the first reported cases in Florida; soon our station reported on a confirmed case in our viewing area, and just like that the far-away virus had reached my doorstep.

Like almost everywhere, life in South Florida seems to have stopped. Each weekday, I go out like other essential workers, taking personal precautions that seem to intensify as time passes. It started with carrying extra sanitizer. Now, I carry the sanitizer plus a mask, and gloves. I compulsively try to avoid touching my face or any surface with my bare hands. I often wonder how effective all of this actually is. Even for someone like me who reports on what is happening, it is hard to believe that this is happening. Downtown Miami is dead, day and night. Fort Lauderdale is quiet and every other big and small city is at a standstill.

Calls of concern come from my family and friends, many of them in Canada and other places around the globe, worried about the work I am doing. Like that teacher in South Korea, many people I know now fear the “outside.” And they don’t understand that the true call of journalism is greater than any fear.

I intimately got a dose of extreme panic in late March when my one-year-old son caught a cold, and I ended up with a fever. The pediatrician assured me he would be ok but also urged me, due to my job and the presence of fever, to try to get tested. I ended up at a private clinic, and my news director told me to stay home until I got those results. Thankfully soon enough I learned my test results were negative. I prayed for a clean bill of health, and for clearance to go back to work. I kept thinking: Journalism needs me right now.

It truly needs us all.

As awful as all this uncertainty is, for journalism it is an important time. All eyes are on us. There is a life or death need for information, and a hunger for more content like nothing I have witnessed in the years I have been practicing the craft.

Never have I seen a story so big and so deeply personal to all. As I think of ways to contribute to this continuing coverage effectively and uniquely I am also consuming much more news than usual. It seems like I am either working or watching the work of others.

My only escape from this “COVID-world” is my son. He knows nothing of what we are all worried about, and when we play I have some moments of relief from the stress.

The stress is a heavy burden to carry. It comes from deep concern. As I check the numbers on the World Health Organization website each day, my heart aches for humanity. As I check on my parents, siblings and extended family, I feel their fears. My deepest fear is for my elderly grandmother. She must survive this! I need her!

When I call her at her home in Canada, she says again and again that this is like living through WWII. She was a young girl in Italy at the time. She finds parallels between now and then because she says she could not leave the house during the war and food was hard to find. She hasn’t seen firsthand the scarcity on some store shelves but when her groceries are delivered by members of our family, they’re always missing something she needs.

Frustration over not finding what we need is often a topic of conversation with friends. We have a lot to talk about lately. My friends, in and out of the business, have provided the kinds of conversations that I need to do good work as a reporter. They give me color and they give me context as my mind is constantly racing to understand the deep complexity this pandemic has brought on.

Some friends, who are teachers, help me understand the challenges facing the education system. The friends who are faithful and generous with prayers help me understand the need for hope in all this confusion. Those who are healthcare workers make me aware that my frontline work could be more dangerous. Friends who have lost their incomes or are afraid that a layoff will come help me intimately comprehend the economic reality much of America is facing.

The financial impact is integral to this health story. I know of many who have lost their jobs. I have reported on the local impact this pandemic is having on businesses. I have learned about the international economic toll.

And there is no telling when this will end. The growing numbers are scary. The deaths are devastating. Social distancing is bringing on isolation people shouldn’t feel for a week, let alone an undefined time. Years of reporting have made me an expert in understanding the need for human interaction.

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by Stephanie Bertini, RTDNA

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