Here at Future Perfect, it’s tradition to cap off each year by presenting a list of the articles that you all read the most. In the past, that’s included stories on everything from artificial intelligence to plant-based meat. And while we still covered those topics this year, our team early in the year realized we’d need to pivot to in-depth coverage of the one topic you all were reading a lot about.
Pandemics and other catastrophic risks to humanity have always been topics of interest for our section. Indeed, one of the feature pieces in the launch week of Future Perfect in fall 2018 was by former Obama Ebola czar — and now Biden chief of staff — Ron Klain on how the US was not prepared for the next big pandemic. His piece, and our coverage warning about the growing risk of a pandemic, has proved prescient.
Without further ado, here are our most-read pieces of 2020. I’m focusing on articles written by the core Future Perfect team (Kelsey Piper, Dylan Matthews, and me), though other Vox writers also contributed amazing work to our section.
It will perhaps come as no great shock that all our most-read articles of the year were about Covid-19 and its repercussions. Many — like this Dylan Matthews piece — were published at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was freaking out and frantically searching for information.
Dylan presented a ton of info in a really easy-to-digest format: 11 charts that shed light on everything from how fast the virus was spreading, to how contagious it is, to who’s likeliest to die from it.
In late March, when there were only about 35,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US, some Americans looked around at all the school and office closures and said the country was overreacting. Kelsey explained an important point at a crucial early juncture: When we’re looking at case rates, we’re really looking at the rates from about two weeks ago, because there’s a lag between when people get infected and when the infections show up in test results.
“You have to take steps that appear in the moment to be an exceptional overreaction — because by the time it looks like the steps you’re taking are appropriate, it will have been too late,” she wrote.
When the Trump administration finally signed a stimulus bill into law to respond to the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, cash-strapped Americans were desperate to know how it would work. Who would get the checks? Would the middle class get more than poorer people? Would rich people still get big checks?
Dylan explained the economic policy that everyone was wondering about. The Future Perfect team had already written a lot about the benefits of giving people money, so it was exciting to see cash transfers become part of one of the most consequential economic relief bills in history.
I wrote this article because a lot of people were panicking about whether runners and cyclists were going to give them Covid-19, especially after a “study” (which contained no input from epidemiologists or virologists and was not peer-reviewed) implied that it was a serious risk.
I wanted to explain why this is not generally something we need to freak out about. So I laid out three factors that help lower risk in any encounter — increased distance, decreased duration, and good ventilation — and noted that being outdoors helps us with all three. Nowadays, almost everyone knows that the virus has a much harder time spreading outdoors, but that wasn’t common knowledge back in April. (I also worked with the Vox video team to explain this; our video has been viewed over 4 million times.)
Kelsey published this article way back on February 28, weeks before lockdowns began, and it did something very important: It gave reasonable people permission to prepare — but not panic — without feeling like they were nuts for doing that. She told us what precautions would be sensible for us to take (avoiding public spaces, buying a couple weeks’ worth of food) and what would be overkill (trying to figure out how to survive if the electricity or water were to go off).
And I appreciate how she normalized our collective anxiety: “Coronavirus paranoia, if you’re experiencing some, isn’t silly or unreasonable — it’s part of the totally normal process of coming to grips with a significant problem.” Broadly, Future Perfect emphasized early on that this pandemic could be a huge deal and that preparing was not an overreaction; it’s a stance that sadly ended up being vindicated.
The pandemic has altered us. Although we’ve all missed normal life, many of us have also realized that some things about normal life weren’t that great — and there are certain things about quarantine life that are worth preserving.
I asked Vox readers to tell me which habits they’d acquired in quarantine that they wanted to maintain. More than 100 people responded across the globe. They wanted to keep reducing consumerism, putting less pressure on themselves, and donating or volunteering more, among other things. As we close out the year, it’s worth reflecting on these resolutions and making a plan for how we’re going to carry them out in 2021.
By late March, the pandemic was already leading to massive layoffs, and US unemployment claims shot up to record levels. Dylan explained to frantic American readers that Congress passed, and President Trump signed into law, new legislation that sought to respond to the crisis. Included in the package were an extra $600 per week of unemployment benefits for up to four months, a new relief program for the self-employed (typically ineligible for jobless benefits), and incentives for work-sharing, which offered an alternative to layoffs by covering the lost wages of workers whose hours had been cut.
This was Dylan’s step-back piece noting that it’s remarkable that cash quickly became the preferred economic response to the coronavirus. He traced the winding path for the idea of direct cash transfers, which had been on the fringes of the policy discourse for years, and celebrated the people who “created a political environment where the previously unthinkable now feels inevitable.”
I remember scanning this handy list back in March! Kelsey told us what to buy so we’d be prepared to hunker down for a while, from shelf-stable food to hobby items. Reading this was also the first time I ever heard of a pulse oximeter, an item that later became a very popular pandemic purchase.
The 1918 flu killed at least 17 million people, and maybe as many as 100 million. Covid-19 has so far killed around 1.67 million people. Although the Covid-19 death toll is, tragically, sure to rise before we see the end of this pandemic, it seems very unlikely it’ll reach the staggering proportions of the 1918 flu.
That’s essentially what Dylan predicted in this comparative look at the two pandemics. He pointed out that the global society of 1918 was “much more primitive when it came to medicine and public health than the world of today,” so while we have reason to worry and take all precautions today, we should keep this pandemic’s effects in perspective.
Noticing in March that Taiwan had one of the world’s best coronavirus containment track records, Kelsey asked a simple question: What is Taiwan doing right, and can we copy them? She did a Q&A with Stanford health policy researcher Jason Wang, who’d already outlined 124 action items of Taiwan’s, like travel bans, quarantines, surveillance steps, and social distancing. The US ended up putting some of these lessons to use.
Among our most popular articles, this is the only one that wasn’t published early in the pandemic. I wrote it in the lead-up to winter, and I think the fact that it’s been read some half-million times speaks to the fact that you all are really dreading the bleak months ahead.
I’m sorry it’s been such a hard year, and I hope the psychologists’ advice that I presented in this article can help you cope (I can honestly say it’s helped me). Please continue doing your best to stay hopeful and safe, and to keep others that way too. With vaccines starting to be administered, we can see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. And with any luck, the Future Perfect team will get to write happier stories for you in 2021.
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