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Reaching readers in the midst of a pandemic

During COVID-19, writers discover inspiration and opportunity.

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When writer and medical educator Syed Rizvi saw the World Health Organization’s call on social media for writers and artists to create pandemic-related materials for the public last year, he used his position as founder of the online medical education platform REV MED to mobilize a team of healthcare providers and brainstormed how they might best be of service to a baffled and terrified world.

“A lot of creatives answered that call and put out amazing illustrations, infographics, tweets, and videos,” he says, “but I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to put out a concrete book, a guidebook that spoke to people during the pandemic, but also for future generations to show how the COVID pandemic of 2020 was handled.”

The result was a vibrantly illustrated digital handbook titled COVID-19: The Reason Why the Earth Stood Still in 2020, downloadable at covid19ebook.org. The text explains in clear, simple prose how the virus enters and affects the body, how it spreads, and how personal protective equipment (PPE) works to combat it. The book includes a back-to-school checklist, numerous mental and physical health resources, and tips for coping in the midst of a pandemic.

“Medical students prefer information to be presented in an artistic, colorful, and concise way,” Rizvi explains. “The general public enjoys a similar presentation. I knew that what’s effective in REV MED would also be effective in teaching everyone about the virus.”

In the early days of the pandemic, writers compared notes across social media platforms about the difficulty of concentrating on even the smallest projects while stuck at home with family members (or alone in stark isolation), juggling child care and illness and job loss and other challenges. Still, authors like Rizvi found themselves inspired to create projects in response to the global disaster.

Bringing the world together

One of these projects is “Human Touch,” a serialized narrative written in real time by bestselling author Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie). Albom tells the story of four families whose properties share a street corner in a small Michigan town and who found themselves suddenly navigating the physical and social repercussions of a strange new virus. He posted each chapter online for people to read and listen to for free.

Donations to the project supported pandemic relief efforts in his hometown of Detroit, helping to pay for medical professionals’ PPE and feed 2,000 senior citizens a week. The money also funded new homeless shelters for COVID-positive patients and the first walk-up testing sites in the city.

Recently, Say Detroit – the nonprofit Albom founded – became an official base of COVID-19 vaccinations in the city. “Knowing that the ‘Human Touch’ story went from an idea in my head to a vaccine shot in someone’s arm is very humbling,” Albom says.

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Readers from around the world contacted him with responses to his story. One particularly poignant note came from a teacher in Long Island whose wife contracted COVID and had to spend over a month down in the basement in isolation. “He sat on the top step and read her the various installments of ‘Human Touch’ to help her get through it,” Albom explains. “Later, he went on to use [the narrative] in his classroom and teach his kids.”

Washington, D.C., attorney Jessica N. Childress also used literature to reach children forced by the pandemic to stay at home. The author of the Juris P. Prudence children’s book series, Childress had already designed and facilitated a Mock Trial Academy for fourth through eighth graders. When the pandemic hit, she created a virtual version of the program, which teaches students to debate kid-friendly topics taken from her books – subjects like whether the government should lower the voting age and whether schools should mandate recess.

“During the course of the academy, kids are learning real laws and using real analytical and writing skills,” Childress explains. “Kids do legal and news research to articulate and support their argument. We also do mock arguments during the course of the academy so that kids can feel comfortable when they make their final argument in front of mock judges.”

The program teaches students about the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, and the Voting Rights Act. “We talk about giving women the right to vote, and we talk about other groups, such as African Americans, who fought for the right to vote.”

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Childress is Black and did an internship in high school with an assistant city attorney who was a Black woman.

“She looked like me. She went to the University of Virginia, where I ended up going to undergrad and law school. Through that exposure, I created goals of who I wanted to be,” Childress explains. “I want kids to see themselves reflected everywhere. The Virtual Academy allows kids from different worlds to come together and be exposed to lawyers from different worlds. It allows us all to come together in this very awesome, unique way.”

Collaborating on the trends

Lauren Scott and four of her colleagues came together in March 2020 when they lost their steady freelance jobs in the film industry. They brainstormed ways to combine their individual talents and strengths in writing, social media marketing, content creation, tech, and web design and ended up creating the media website Culture Slate which focuses on pop culture and entertainment news, videos, and podcasts, with an emphasis on inclusion and fan communities.

Visitors to the site will find articles like “Lando Calrissian Featured for Star Wars Pride Month,” an interview with Emily Swallow from The Mandalorian, and podcast episodes analyzing 1960s Star Trek episodes. Culture Slate has become so popular that a year after its launch, it surpassed 4 million views. “We got lucky because people were sitting at home bored and looking for something to read,” Scott explains. “We did not expect to blow up in the way we did.”

Writers interested in launching a similar project should be aware of what’s trending and what has the potential to go viral, Scott says. “We had some marketing experience and some social media experts who knew what they were doing, and when we spotted a trend, we jumped on it, and then we’d have stuff go viral.”

She notes that the learning curve was steep before the site began to make money. “Suddenly, we had to learn payroll systems and hire an accountant and test different web hosting platforms.”

Scott tells creative entrepreneurs interested in collaboration to identify each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and envision each person’s ideal role in creating a project. “Bring people on that you work really well with and who have as much passion as you do,” she says.

Reaching out to readers

Rizvi agrees that passion and creativity are key to the collaboration process. For COVID-19: The Reason Why the Earth Stood Still in 2020, he assembled a team of multi-talented medical professionals from around the world. “Daniel Hrbolic from Australia works in speech pathology and is very artistic,” he says. “I went to the United Kingdom and involved Pippasha Khan, who is a dental surgeon and was excited to co-author the book. And then we picked up Rebecca Caruana, from Maltawho’s an amazing talent and an aspiring physician.”

The group put together an advisory board and a panel comprised of different doctors, nurses, psychologists, and COVID task force leaders. “We made sure our team included global experts because the virus isn’t only in my backyard in New York; it’s everywhere,” Rizvi says. “I wanted the world’s perspective to appear in this book – not just my perspective.”

The team promoted the free book on social media as an antidote to all the COVID misinformation on the internet and asked for donations to write similar books in the future. “We also gave a safe space for people around the world to be able to contact us,” Rizvi explains. He describes a medical student from a North African country whose school and hospital shut down in the midst of the pandemic and related political instability in her town. She couldn’t get her books, and so she studied the infographics he’d posted on various social media platforms. 

“I was really taken aback by that,” he says. “What we’re doing is even bigger than what we think we’re doing.”

He advises writers launching new projects to use social media as much as possible. “It’s your way to connect with your readers,” he says. “Writers now are more open to exchanging ideas and information, thoughts about their work, and comments about why and how they wrote something. Readers would love to hear from you.”

Social media, he notes, has also provided writers stuck at home during the pandemic with ways to find and work with one another. “When I started reaching out and talking to people and asking them if they wanted to co-author this book with me or illustrate or design, no one said no,” he says. “During the pandemic, my main source of appreciation has been creative collaboration.”

Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Instagram/Twitter: @WildMelissaHart.

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