Writing through the apocalypse

Our end-times advice columnist reflects on starting something new when everything is falling apart. 

A protest, an empty doctor’s office and a taped off playground

As the coronavirus has reshaped our daily lives, you've been sending us your questions about how to navigate our strange new normal, from protesting to getting outside. (Clockwise from top left, Matt M. McKnight, Emily McCarty and David Quantic/Crosscut)

As the coronavirus crisis exploded into March, the world reeled as new information poured in each day, some of it contradictory. So Crosscut introduced the column Apocalypse: Now What? in April to cut through the overload and provide practical, personal advice to readers. Now 10 articles in, Crosscut audience engagement editor Mohammed Kloub interviews science and environment editor Ted Alvarez about the column's inspiration and origins, and speculates where it might be headed.

Why did you want to write this column?

I think those first few weeks of quarantine and data overload, there was a real sense of information whiplash going on. “Masks or no masks? Is a trail safe or dangerous? Could I really not leave the house?” I really wanted to try and find actionable, workable advice for people desperate for it. And we were getting all kinds of questions from readers who had very specific requests. Not, “Should I visit my elderly relatives,” so much as, “Can I drive to Seaside, Oregon, to visit my Nana? P.S. I’m immunocompromised.” They were so specific they required a specific response. In journalism, I think you spend a lot of time trying to make sure what you report informs people, but that’s a passive act — you just have to cross your fingers and hope it reaches the right readers. This was a way to provide direct help to a real person struggling out in the world. 


Catch up on all our recent installments of Apocalypse: Now What?


What have you learned so far?

Well, the hardest and therefore perhaps biggest thing to learn is that in the age of coronavirus, there are very few hard and fast answers — and those don’t last very long. Yes, certain things like modes of transmission within buildings and in close proximity have remained constant, but we’re learning on the fly, so that many recommendations change as new data comes to light. And then half of those will reverse. It’s what makes coronavirus so fascinating and terrifying. So what you end up doing much of the time is passing on a set of principles or rules people can use to make safer decisions as those conditions change.   

What’s been your favorite to answer?

I think the reader who went full existential crisis, wondering if there was anything left to hope for in Seattle’s future. I had our estimable house historian Knute “Mossback” Berger step in for that, and he gave us an overview of all the harrowing crises the city has faced. But it had an oddly optimistic, calming effect: Our city has been through a lot, and we always found a way to something better — how the hollowed-out city of the ’70s led to a cultural renaissance, for instance. Odds are this time will be the same.

What do you hope readers are getting from it?

Hopefully, answers they can use! Ideally, they’ll read it and be better equipped to assess a situation and make a decision, and get us closer to a healthier world. Also, I’ve had a lot of fun playing with voice and formats, so hopefully there’s a laugh or two in all the gloom.

How do you envision it moving forward?

We’ve talked a lot about this: Does this end when this apocalypse — the COVID-19 one — ends? Or is COVID-19 here to stay? Of course, just as COVID-19 had us on the ropes, we entered a whole ‘nother era of social upheaval. If anything, this all proves Knute’s point: One way or another, apocalypses of some kind will keep coming. So I hope we can adapt to whatever crisis comes down the way for our readers, however personal and specific or broad and far reaching. It’s always an apocalypse somewhere — so keep asking questions, dear readers.

 

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