Q&A: Mindy Fullilove

Dr. Mindy Fullilove on the coalition’s founding, collective consciousness in pandemics, and what the media could do to improve public understanding of COVID-19.

The pandemic isn’t over, despite announcements from the government officials, as well as coverage from many major media outlets saying otherwise.

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Founded in early 2022, the People’s CDC is a group of volunteer “public health practitioners, scientists, healthcare workers, educators, advocates,” and others working to fill the information gaps that remain around COVID-19 to reduce harm and infections.

This week, we spoke with Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a member of the People’s CDC, about the coalition’s founding, collective consciousness in pandemics, and what the media could do to improve public understanding of COVID-19.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I’d like to start by talking about the Guardian piece the People’s CDC published back in April. How did that, and the People’s CDC in general, come about?

As you know, we got the idea for the People’s CDC in January 2022 because there were a series of decisions we thought were really misleading the public, most especially the idea that people only needed to quarantine for five days, which was quite contrary to the scientific evidence. So we issued this call, so to speak, and we held a first meeting and many people came, and then we decided to launch the People’s CDC. 

The idea came up that we should explain what we were doing, so that’s how the Guardian piece came into being. The way the People’s CDC works is that people have an idea, and they’re either part of a team and the team takes it up, or they [People’s CDC] recruit some new people and take it up. Anything that happens is generally led by somebody who thinks it’s important, and then other people weigh in. 

Some of the things, like working with major publications, will be posted on Google Docs so that everybody can weigh in … So that’s the process that happened for The Guardian — I was one of the people who weighed in to read it. 

One of the things we’ve been able to accomplish together is the regular production of an assessment of the pandemic. We do two reports: COVID This Week and the Weekly Weather Report. We have a lot of really sound people — biologists and epidemiologists and public health experts — who are working to produce these, so people should sign up

In terms of COVID coverage, what do you think could be improved?

I’m a social psychiatrist, and what I’ve really thought about is what it’s been like for people to live through the process of the pandemic. And, where has the reporting helped or hurt? Speaking from my own experience, it’s been very confusing to know what to do for societies. 

I would say that we’re in a confusing situation where nobody really knows what to do. If you don’t tell people what you do know, if you rule out paying attention to deep structural issues, that’s where you fall into trouble — and that’s the situation that we’re in. 

As you know, we’ve messed up our ecology through abusive exploitation of all the ecosystems, and the people that have set this up are not talking about that. If you’re not talking about the problem, that makes it much worse for people because you can’t solve the problem. And if you aren’t straight about the fact that we’ve never seen this before, we don’t know what it is, and it’s going to be evolving, but then you change your mind real quick, people just lose confidence. 

That’s a situation that makes people maximally unhappy with the officials. To the extent that a lot of journalism is not critical, it’s just parroting what high-ranking officials say, it keeps the angst and the anxiety going. That’s the situation that I think we’re in, and then the People’s CDC is trying to say, “Okay, we’re gonna be as clear as we can be — both about the structural problems and about what is known.”

Switching gears a bit, how does your research on cities and collective consciousness intersect with this work?

We formed a new organization and it was a group of people that had never worked together before, so there was no rulebook. I mean, there are the people who’ve tried to do this, but not necessarily under these pandemic conditions that we were trying to work under as a group of largely volunteers. 

As a social psychiatrist, I’m very concerned with how groups get formed. It’s fine to say we’re going to present the truth, but what is the truth? How do you get to it? How do you show it? How do you get people to read it? These are very big questions, and you, as a journalist, know exactly how tough that is. 

So, how do you help people tackle something as big as saying this is where the pandemic is this week? Who could we call in to give us ideas? What was the vision we could go for? One of the things we did at the beginning was call on people who had been part of the fight against AIDS. There were several very important groups that did work similar to what we are doing, such as the Treatment Action Group, the GHMC, and ACT UP

I started my career as an AIDS researcher, so I’m very familiar with their work, but the way those groups function was less well known to me. How did they become effective groups? What did that involve? We asked people to come talk to us about who had been around and what they had seen. 

This concept of collective consciousness means that you create a workgroup and share ideas, so the challenges become: Do people respect each other? Do they listen to each other? Those are profound things. So I looked at AIDS in cities where the pandemic was very powerful, and then looked for the intersections between a pandemic, a city or cities, and then the building of workgroups that can collaborate.

At The Objective, we like to emphasize that journalists don’t need to attend journalism school in order to do their jobs well. In fact, there’s a lot people can learn from other fields and unique backgrounds. Which skills or practices from your career would you share with journalists? 

My daughter freelanced and went to journalism school, then became a community organizer and now leads the University of Orange. So from watching her freelance before she went to journalism school, and after, I would say the trick is to keep that enthusiasm for a good story. Don’t lose that when you go to journalism school. Or, if you don’t go to journalism school, but you have a good idea, then it’s important to become really systematic. 

The journalist that I revere is Mary Bishop, who wrote Street by Street, Block by Block, a story of urban renewal in Roanoke that became the foundation for my own book Root Shock. This is a story she came upon by accident. She spent a couple of years building relationships, building trust with people so they would tell her [their] stories, and being fanatic about running down the details. 

She once told me that she knew the fate of every house in the affected area, and that she hadn’t been able to get to everyone but she tried to get to everyone. I mean, that’s the craft of journalism. On the basis of that, she was able to write about the neighborhood in a way that really framed my own understanding of it. Deeply influential.

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