The New Yorker’s Long Battle Over Long Covid
An organized and vocal online community of Covid sufferers made criticism of a piece they viewed as too skeptical a cause of it own
The November 8 issue of The New Yorker opened with two jarring letters to the editor, both around three hundred words long, occupying the entirety of the Mail page. One, from Diana Berrent, the founder of the Covid survivors’ group Survivor Corps, noted that “The New Yorker’s article on Long Covid, in which I was a central subject, was a profound affront to everyone suffering the long-term sequelae of even mild and asymptomatic cases of Covid-19.” The other, from Nick Güthe, identified as a senior adviser to Survivor Corps, pointed out a factual error in the same piece. “The article caused my family and me great pain,” wrote Güthe, whose wife, Heidi Ferrer, died by suicide in May 2021 after experiencing symptoms of long Covid. “It got a crucial detail of the event wrong: my son did not find his mother’s body, as the article implied, because, in one of my proudest moments as a parent, I shut the door instantly, before he could see it.”
The piece in question, “The Struggle to Define Long Covid” by contributing writer Dhruv Khullar, a practicing physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side, began its life this past June when Khullar reached out to the Survivor Corps press email to learn more about the organization. But the sheer size of the long Covid community online — there are thousands of users across Facebook and Twitter alone, many of whom collaborate to lobby scientists and the government — combined with its members’ often painful, deeply personal stories of illness and loss introduced a new dynamic into the piece’s after-life. Khullar and The New Yorker had to contend with a slew of a kind of readers — engaged, active, and highly organized in an online group — who were more than prepared to voice their displeasure immediately and publicly.
When she first received Khullar’s inquiry, Berrent replied quickly, delighted to be contacted by the magazine. After receiving a Covid diagnosis in March 2020, Berrent had started a Facebook group for Covid and, later, long Covid sufferers—the germ of Survivor Corps—to share their symptoms and stories. Her work had already been written about in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, and she was eager to add The New Yorker to that list. “It was really sort of my dream publication,” she told Off the Record.
Several weeks after his initial email, Khullar told Berrent in July that he was interested in writing a “kind of profile” of her and her work with Survivor Corps. “In speaking with my editors, they were really compelled by your story,” Khullar wrote. He reported on the piece for around three months, tagging along with Berrent to various events on her calendar. “I gave him literally unfettered access to my life,” she said.
When the piece was first posted online on September 20, Berrent said she was thrilled to see her name prominently featured. But then her feelings changed. “It took a few readings to sort of really start to parse out the various deep, serious problems with the piece,” she said. What she thought was going to be a piece spotlighting Survivor Corps had become, in her words, “a referendum on whether or not long Covid-19 exists.” (“There is little doubt among researchers that long Covid exists,” Khullar wrote. “But the syndrome is new, and lives for the moment in the realm of theory and anecdote.”) Chief among Berrent’s complaints was that Khullar’s story “was rooted in skepticism,” to her mind casting aspersions on the validity of long Covid patients’ suffering.
Facing a backlash from the long Covid online community, Khullar responded to critics in a Twitter thread on September 23. “My goal in my article on long Covid was to describe the challenges of diagnosing a new medical condition—not to cast doubt on whether it exists,” he wrote, adding, “I feel deeply for Heidi Ferrer, who died by suicide after her battle with long Covid—and I am grateful for @NickGuthe’s bravery in sharing her story with the world. I am sorry if the way in which it was presented caused him or anyone else pain. That was not at all my intention.”
Khullar declined to comment to Off the Record, as did Joshua Rothman, who edited the piece, and David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. A spokesperson for the magazine said in a statement, “This story approached the science of long Covid in a careful and responsible way, grappling with both suffering and uncertainty empathically. It argues that long Covid is a crisis that must be tackled urgently by all of us. We stand by the story.”
On September 28, Berrent sent a letter to the editor with her concerns about the article. She wrote Khullar the next day, who replied that he believed the magazine’s editorial staff was reviewing her letter. On October 4, The New Yorker posted the Mail section for that week’s issue, including three letters about Khullar’s article—each critical of the piece, including one from a medical researcher at Duke University who called Berrent a “forceful patient advocate.”
Feeling snubbed that her letter had not been included, Berrent took to Twitter to accuse Khullar of being “dismissive and offensive” and soon found other like-minded supporters from the large, vocal community of long Covid patients and allies that she had helped to foster. “It is important [for the letter] to be published bc you are representing a very important movement,” wrote one user. Some had expressed frustration with the piece from the outset, calling it “abhorrent,” “uninformed,” and “poorly written.”
That same day, Güthe had emailed Khullar to point out the factual mistake regarding his wife’s suicide. Remnick contacted Güthe the next day and then, on the day after, emailed Berrent directly. “We’re sorry to hear that you’re dissatisfied with Dhruv Khullar’s article on long Covid,” he wrote. “It seems that, at first, you experienced the piece more positively. Your view seems to have shifted as some readers, many with strong preconceptions, have expressed their unhappiness with the story.” Remnick described the article as a “fair-minded exploration of a difficult and vital issue” that “shows how … researchers, advocates, and patients are searching for answers, doing their best at a time when our knowledge is still evolving.” Concerning the error about Güthe’s wife, he added, “We regret the mistake and we’ll be correcting the article.” The piece online now carries the correction: “An earlier version of this article misstated who found Heidi Ferrer.”
Not long after, Berrent teamed up with Güthe to arrange a call with Khullar’s editor, Joshua Rothman. Güthe agreed with Berrent’s interpretation of the piece and was particularly troubled by the error about his wife’s death. “That was the emotional core of the piece,” Güthe told Off the Record. “I basically emailed Dhruv and said, ‘You’re going to put me in touch with your editor. And you’re going to do it quickly.’”
“They didn’t take ownership of what they did,” said Güthe. “This was ‘what-about-ism,’ writ large,” Berrent said, borrowing a term Güthe used in his letter. “It just flies in the face of everything you would expect of The New Yorker.”
In what Berrent described as a “highly contentious,” off-the-record Zoom call with Rothman on October 19, Güthe and Berrent explained their objections to the piece. Rothman suggested that both Güthe and Berrent write letters to the editor, to be paired and published together. After several rounds of edits in which Rothman, Güthe, and Berrent deliberated over the letters’ wording and length, the letters were published. “I think that the letters from you and Nick are very critical of both the article and The New Yorker, making a wide range of points very forcefully,” Rothman wrote to Berrent in an email.
When the letters were posted online on November 1, they provoked even more negative responses from the long Covid community. One user called the article “weird and damaging.” “Wow, wonder what @NewYorker’s game is to belittle and discredit ppl doing good,” read another post.
For Güthe, Berrent, and other members of the long Covid community, though, the piece amounted to a “betrayal of trust” in Berrent’s words. But for The New Yorker, the lasting lesson of the incident is that many of its subjects now possess platforms that can raise a ruckus on their own.