Print Friendly and PDF

Christakis: What History Has Taught Us About the Future and COVID-19

Key Takeaways 

  • Wisest course of action is to vaccinate as many people as possible to protect our society, people, and economy.
  • Our ancestors have been experiencing these for thousands of years and have actually tried to warn us.
  • From the moment it emerged, COVID-19 was slated to cause $16 trillion of economic and health damage – an amount of money that exceeds the Great Depression.
  • Things like fear, lies, denial, and blame are close companions of plagues.
  • The virus will eventually become endemic, meaning it still circulates among us, but not with the potency it had at the onset before better levels of immunity were developed.

“We happen to be alive at a once-in-a-century event.”

Nicholas A. Christakis, social scientist, and physician; director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University; and co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, reflected on what the history of pandemics and plagues can tell us about the physical and economic impacts of disease and how it informs our future with COVID-19 – the second deadliest pandemic in the last 100 years.

As we experience the COVID-19 pandemic as a country there is much to consider beyond immediate impacts like death and polarizing opinions of how to eradicate it. Though case numbers and death tolls tend to be top-of-mind metrics, what Americans fail to properly understand are the potential long-term effects of this disease. Those who contract COVID-19 and survive may sustain enduring or permanent disabilities or side effects that will require special care and take a toll on the health care system.

“By my judgement, we’re not yet at the beginning of the end of this pandemic. But I do think we’re at the end of the beginning,” Christakis said.

What History Has Tried to Teach Us: Plagues Aren’t New, Just New to Us 

Christakis acknowledged that, “Plagues are not new to our species. They’re just new to us.”

Our ancestors have been experiencing these for thousands of years and have actually tried to warn us. Plagues are part of the human experience. People are misunderstanding the impact of this pandemic – thinking that our response to it is what’s collapsing the economy. The virus is the problem, not our response to it, Christakis said.

From the moment it emerged, COVID-19 was slated to cause $16 trillion of economic and health damage – an amount of money that exceeds the Great Depression. Physical distancing, economic collapse, and slowing down are all characteristic features of plagues. Economies require human interaction, and these interactions stop when people are dying, which means collapse.

Another element of this pandemic consistent with thousands of years of historical experiences, plagues bring on “dark tendencies.” Things like fear, lies, denial, and blame are close companions of plagues.

The Three Phases of COVID-19 

Acute 

Christakis forecasts that the acute phase – what we’re in now – will last into 2022. This is when we experience the biological and epidemiological shock of the virus as it spreads. This will last until every person has either been infected or has been vaccinated, when we reach the herd immunity threshold.

Intermediate 

This phase, which Christakis expects to last until 2023-2024, entails coping with the clinical, psychological, social, and economic aftershocks of the virus. These impacts have been evidenced in student learning loss, unemployment, future debts, and the like.

Post-Pandemic 

In times of plague, people don’t spend their money as a result of unemployment, fear, or in anticipation for the future. This will eventually reverse and allow people to escape from their seclusion to avoid contracting the virus.  People will actively be seeking release from these confinements.

Biological and Social Outcomes 

COVID-19 will have a biological and social end with a few potential outcomes. The virus will eventually become endemic, meaning it still circulates among us, but not with the potency it had at the onset before better levels of immunity were developed. The worst-case scenario is that we could see the emergence of a vaccine-evading strain of the virus, which would set us back to the beginning. The most likely outcome, however, would be that the virus will mutate to become more benign. Finally, over many centuries, we’ll evolve to develop stronger defenses against it.

Socially, “plagues end when everyone believes they have ended or when everyone is simply willing to tolerate more risk,” Christakis said.

He noted our society has seemed to do just that and put our head in the sand on a variety of troubling epidemics – mass shootings, young adult suicide, the opioid epidemic – which has proven much deadlier than COVID-19. Christakis warns we may do the same with the coronavirus. There’s a debate among our society about whether or not it’s too soon to declare victory on the pandemic. Christakis says that is a foolish approach at this point and that a wise course of action is to vaccinate as many people as possible to protect our society, people, and economy.

History points to more woe ahead.

What’s Next with Vaccines: Let’s Lead the World 

“What kind of civilization are we if we cannot somehow find a way to help our fellow citizens even if they are failing to take a safe and free vaccine,” Christakis said.

There are two kinds of boosters on the horizon. One is getting another shot of an existing shot to bring up antibody levels. Christakis noted, however, that the medical community was not relying on antibody immunity, but rather cellular immunity. The second kind entails the development of new vaccines to protect against new, emergent variants of the virus.

“We profess to lead the world. Well let’s lead. Let’s vaccinate the world. Let’s do the right thing.”

This session was sponsored by Consumers Energy.