A year of COVID: Making sense of an ‘alien and unnatural’ time

Nicholas A. Christakis and the book cover for Apollo's Arrow.
Nicholas A. Christakis

Over the past year, Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis has strived to help others understand the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Yale physician and sociologist has penned op-ed columns and popular Twitter threads explaining the virus’ scientific and social aspects. He led a team that developed Hunala, a free smartphone app that provides daily snapshots of personal and regional risk of contracting COVID-19. He even authored a book, “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live,” (Little Brown Spark) which examines the crisis from epidemiological, virological, sociological, and historical perspectives.

In a recent conversation with YaleNews, Christakis, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, reflected on the past year and shared his perspective on how the virus will shape our world moving forward. The interview has been edited and condensed.

In “Apollo’s Arrow,” you provide readers with a historical perspective on the pandemic. What can we learn from humanity’s experience with plagues to help us make sense of these difficult times?

A central argument of the book is that while life right now seems alien and unnatural, it’s actually typical of human experience during plagues. Plagues aren’t new to our species. They are just new to us.  Humans have confronted them over and over again for thousands of years. They’re in the Bible. Homer and Shakespeare wrote about them. We think it’s crazy and appalling to be reduced to living like this, but our current experience is quite typical of plagues throughout history — and in many ways better. People separate from each other and hunker down. Economic activity slows. Many of us become more religious. We experience fear and grief, but also kindness and generosity.

Given what we can learn from history, I don’t think people should just imagine that we’re going to rapidly and easily return to normal. We face a challenging path, but I’m optimistic that we will eventually see the other side of this as a society. One certainty about plagues is that they always end.

You note that plagues bring out the best and worst of us. Looking back on the past year, what about our response to this dark chapter gives you hope? 

Well, mostly, the virus is the villain of this story. Historically, during times of plague, people have often behaved badly, and we’ve seen that now, too.  But I’m impressed by the many good things we’re doing to fight the virus. 

One of the arguments I made in my previous book, “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society,” is that our species has evolved many wonderful qualities: we befriend and love each other, we cooperate with each other, we teach and learn from each other. These are very unusual properties in animals, but we have them.

In “Apollo’s Arrow,” I show how the germ exploits these innate tendencies of ours to form particular kinds of social organization. One can argue that the spread of germs is the price we pay for the spread of ideas. Germs exploit our social networks. If we weren’t social, there would be no contagion.

So let’s flip that on its head: The spread of germs is the price we pay for the spread of ideas, but it’s equally the case that the spread of ideas allows us to fight the germs. Right now, people are working together to implement non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as social distancing and mask wearing. Our scientists are cooperating and sharing information around the world. It is precisely our capacity for cooperation and learning that has equipped us with the tools to defeat the pandemic and minimize its toll.

Can social networks be helpful in disseminating the vaccines?

Yes. In fact, we’ve done some work in my lab on what we call “dueling contagions” between biological and social contagions, between germs, on the one hand, and ideas and behaviors on the other. The virus spreads from person to person — that’s a biological contagion. There also is a social contagion through which ideas about vaccines (or masking) are spreading from person to person. And each of these contagions affects the other.

In 2009, during the H1N1 flu pandemic, we showed that people’s probability of being vaccinated depended on whether their friends were vaccinated, and also depended on whether their friends had suffered the flu. Similarly, people’s probability of getting the flu depended on whether their friends had contracted it or whether their friends were vaccinated. These two contagions, the biological and the social, each affect the other.

In a sense, we face the question now of whether our behavioral contagion will outstrip the biological contagion. Can we move fast enough through our social behaviors to arrest or at least reduce the progress of the virus? I think we can.

Given that we have multiple effective vaccines in circulation, how do you expect the next year to unfold?

I think we’re still in the opening period of the pandemic. People need to understand that we’re experiencing a once-in-a-century event. It is miraculous that we’ve invented a vaccine this quickly. We are the first generation of human beings confronting the ancient threat of plague that has been able to invent specific countermeasures in the form of a vaccine in real time. That’s amazing. But nevertheless, half a million Americans have died. As many as a million will have died before the pandemic ends in the coming couple of years.

The coronavirus is never going to disappear. Even when we vaccinate large numbers of people, there will still be outbreaks. The pathogen is going to circulate. And, as we’ve seen, new variants will emerge.

I think we’ll be living in this strange world at least through this calendar year. We’ll be wearing masks and avoiding gatherings. We’ll be limiting travel. Schools and businesses may need to close occasionally. But by the end of 2021, we’ll reach herd immunity (where the epidemic potential of the virus is greatly reduced) — either naturally because of the spread of the virus or artificially because of adoption of the vaccine. And then, finally, we will put the biological and epidemiological impact of the virus behind us.

What will happen once we achieve herd immunity?

If you look all the preceding centuries of epidemics, then it’s clear that we’re going to have an intermediate period in which we come to terms with the pandemic’s psychological, social, and economic toll. I think that will last through 2023, approximately. We need to recover from the terrible shock of this experience. Millions of businesses have closed. Millions of Americans are out of work. Millions of children have missed significant amounts of school. Millions of people have lost family members to the virus. Many will have chronic disabilities from contracting it. We need to come to terms with all of these things, which will take time.

When will life return to normal?

A lot depends on what one defines as “normal”! I think that sometime in 2024 — the timing isn’t precise — we’ll enter the post-pandemic period. And I think that’s going to feel a little like the Roaring Twenties in the last century. People will relentlessly seek out social opportunities after being cooped up for so long. They’ll flock to nightclubs, bars, restaurants, sporting events, concerts, and parties. We might see a rise in sexual licentiousness. And I expect the economy to boom and the arts to flourish as our tendency to socialize goes into overdrive.

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