Lately, when I try to fall asleep, I hear the lyrics to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” over and over in my head. And I know I’m not alone.
These are trying times to say the least. But while some of us are hunkered down choosing to watch only cat videos and baking nine hundred batches of cookies (not judging), many others have legitimate fears for loved ones, questions about their own health risks, or perhaps, feel like checking in on the latest news every minute will somehow bring us the hope we so badly need. Clearly, none of us feels “fine.”
But like Goldilocks, it’d be terrific if we could find some level of “just right” when it comes to how much of the anxiety-producing information we consume and the factual information we need — along with some levity — while we do our best to ride out the global COVID-19 crisis.
Thankfully, as we deal with everything from scams and misinformation to missing our favorite real-world experiences like sports and movies (or, let’s be real: any real-world experience whatsoever), a number of podcasts are here to heal us in ways medicine cannot at the moment. Here are the five best coronavirus podcasts for those seeking just the right dose of the good stuff.
These short, easy-to-digest episodes deliver just what the podcast’s title suggests: clear insights into what’s accurate and what isn’t as physicians, elected officials, and the public still try to wrap their minds around what exactly this virus is, does, and will mean for us now and in the future.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta — who serves as CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent — provides a voice of reason amid the crowded noise, confusion, and chaos we find ourselves in these days. His goal is to fight against what he calls the “infodemic” surrounding the pandemic. For example, earlier this week, he answered listener questions about everything from reinfection risks (answer: there’s no definitive study, but full recovery from COVID-19 should limit the risk of reinfection, if this virus acts like other viruses we’ve seen, according to Dr. Fauci, who weighed in), to how much young adults should be worried about infection or death from the illness (answer: it’s still not clear, because a new study shows that adults of all ages are at risk of getting sick).
Dr. Gupta stresses that the emphasis should be on preventing the spread of the disease. He has also featured advice about talking to kids about COVID-19. “At first, I tried to protect them from the news,” says CNN anchor Kate Baldwin. “[Then] it was that moment that I was like, ‘Kate, it is time to call in the experts.’” All kids need reassurance, she said. Perhaps we all do.
In this daily-ish coronavirus podcast, The Atlantic’s Dr. James Hamblin and Katherine Wells talk to friends and colleagues over the phone. Dr. Hamblin, an expert in preventive medicine, listens to questions and shares practical advice when he can, and Wells shares her anxiety about everyday concerns, like, “Is it still safe to go get toilet paper?,” while describing what it’s like to do so during the episode’s recording in Brooklyn. “It’s like the moment before something happens and we don’t know how bad it’ll be,” she says.
It’s taken a little while for the series to find its rhythm and balance between these diary-like thoughts and actual on-the-ground reporting. Sometimes the scattered conversation between the hosts feels too disorganized for my already-disorganized life, and perhaps could be tightened up from nearly thirty minutes to fifteen to meet our increasingly-taxed attention spans. Of course, this kind of authenticity can also be comforting.
A highlight is when other writers for the magazine join in the conversation, such as Lori Gottlieb, a trained therapist who writes the Dear Therapist column. In the episode “A Slight Temporary Relief,” she points out that it’s critical that we reframe our current experience of “social distancing” from thinking of it as isolation to increased connectivity, just by virtual means. “Humans don’t do well with uncertainty in general,” Gottlieb says, adding that “we need laughter more than ever now.” While it sometimes feels inappropriate given the gravity of what’s happening, she wants us to know it’s OK to feel more than one emotion at a time.
Staying In with Emily & Kumail
For those of us looking for a break from the dreaded C-word, but still craving community in this time of uncertainty, beloved couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have us covered with their new “hopefully, short-lived” podcast that gives back to charities helping those affected by the outbreak in what Nanjiani calls the “post-Hanks-Wilson” era of American consciousness.
Given their experience with self-quarantines (Gordon’s chronic illness sometimes keeps them at home during attacks), they promise to help cure all things cabin fever-related, such as what to stream or which video games to play, and how to create healthy routines to optimize WFH productivity, noting that it’s also fine to focus on health in general (i.e. making time for a daily walk and not stressing about possibly gaining a few pounds — it’s going to be OK). At an hour long, the first episode was enjoyable, but future episodes will likely be even more so once the pair dusts off their podcasting skills (they previously hosted The Indoor Kids).
They did take time to point to some of the more serious implications of the virus and what it means for people like Gordon who are immunocompromised, and really for anyone who has experienced chronic illness and knows what this kind of constant anxiety feels like.
For the more news-oriented listener, NPR’s daily podcast about the coronavirus pandemic covers all dimensions of the story from science, to economics and culture, with a particular focus on politics. Hosted by veteran reporter Kelly McEvers, the podcast’s short, 10-minute episodes are most valuable when they refer listeners to other reporting that might be of interest. McEvers also includes stories and interviews from NPR’s Science, International, National, Business and Washington reporting teams, as well as from station reporters, and the crews at Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Some listeners have been disappointed in the lack of “newsworthiness” of the podcast’s coverage, and given how quickly the virus has changed our lives sometimes by the minute or hour, some of the reporting might feel dated by the time an episode is delivered in the afternoon. Still, the show is topping the podcast charts for a reason. In times of crisis, legacy outlets like NPR do what they do best: high-quality, fact-based journalism.
The New York Times’ The Daily has recently turned its focus to coronavirus coverage. In the interest of providing not just news and information, host Michael Barbaro has added shorter “special” episodes to its daily lineup featuring guests doing everything from reading poems to offering personal insights and sharing experiences of how their lives have shifted because of the pandemic.
And speaking of “post-Hanks-Wilson” (that’s Tom Hanks, who, alongside his wife Rita Wilson by all accounts helped Americans finally start to take this virus seriously), there was a particularly special recent episode called, “This Tom Hanks Story Will Make You Feel Less Bad.” As Times Magazine writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner reflected on her recent profile of the Academy Award-winning actor, she realized that kindness and goodness can be just as contagious as a virus.
Kristin Marguerite Doidge is a writer and lecturer at Loyola Marymount University whose work has appeared in Fortune, Marie Claire, The Atlantic, and on NPR. Her forthcoming book, Nora Ephron: A Life, will be published by Chicago Review Press in Spring 2021. Connect with her on Twitter @KMarguerite_USC.