Zeynep Tufekci on mistakes made and lessons learned during the pandemic

March 19, 2021

In recent columns for The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci, Associate Professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), examines mistakes made by public health officials and the media that continue to hinder efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, as well as positive developments that can help society have a brighter future. She also challenges the United States to share its vaccine surplus with countries that desperately need it in an op-ed for the New York Times.

In “5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating,” published by The Atlantic on Feb.  26, Tufekci laments the ways that poor messaging and misguided news coverage have warped perceptions about the COVID-19 virus and dampened people’s reactions to the “brilliant hope” offered by the vaccines.

Snapshot of Zeynep Tufekci
Zeynep Tufekci on a 2020 research trip to Sri Lanka. 

She identifies five key mistakes that have derailed effective pandemic responses and offers alternative approaches that can help the public move forward through the challenges ahead.

“Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails,” she writes. “We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.”

In her March 18 column, “3 Ways the Pandemic Has Made the World Better,” Tufekci explains how the pandemic spurred advances that will continue to benefit the world long after COVID-19 has been contained.

“Nothing will erase the losses we experienced,” she writes. “But this awful year has nudged us toward dramatic improvements in human life, thanks to new biotechnologies, greater experience with the positive aspects of digital connectivity, and a more dynamic scientific process.”

“Still, let’s never do it again,” she concludes.

In “Let Our Doses Go!”, an op-ed published in the New York Times on March 17, Tufekci implores the U.S. to share excess vaccine doses, particularly of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with countries that are struggling to vaccinate even a small percentage of their populations. She argues that current manufacturing capacity and planned improvements ensure the U.S. will have enough vaccines to care for its population, even if vaccinations are extended to children.    

Tufekci encourages President Biden to release the extra doses, not only because that is the morally right choice, but also because it can help rebuild global goodwill toward the country.

“Mr. Biden’s legacy will surely include not just how he oversees the outstanding campaign to vaccinate Americans but also how his administration steps up to help vaccinate the rest of the planet against this scourge,” she writes. “Along with doing whatever we can to increase vaccine supply globally, we should let our excess doses go where they’re desperately needed, without waiting another day.”

Less than 48 hours after the column appeared, the U.S. authorized the release of unusable doses to Canada and Mexico. “So happy that my piece is already slightly outdated!” Tufekci tweeted.

A principal researcher with Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP), Tufekci has been a contributing writer with The Atlantic since 2019 and has written numerous op-eds for the New York Times over several years. She also publishes a newsletter at zeynep.substack.com.

Tufekci has garnered extensive praise for using her writing and influence to help improve the public’s understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, staring in early 2020. She was recently named Tar Heel of the Month by the News & Observer and featured in Carolina’s The Well. Last fall, the New York Times lauded her for “Getting the Big Things Right” so frequently on a number of topics.