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Plagues Have Playbooks: Nicholas Christakis on the Enduring Impact of COVID-19

By James Martinez

In early 2020, Dr. Nicholas Christakis knew the COVID-19 virus deserved serious attention. The Yale professor had been collaborating with Chinese scientists for several years using cell phone data to study human interactions. Tracking data from the movements of 11 million people, he and others were able to predict the timing, intensity and location of the pandemic early on throughout China.

Growing more concerned, he sounded the alarm about the risks of public transmission in the U.S. by tweeting basic epidemiology information.

“To my amazement many of these threads went viral and gave me the idea that there was a lot of hunger out there for such information,” said Christakis.

The experience prompted the best-selling author, physician and sociologist to write “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.” Starting in March 2020, he completed the book in just four months.

One of the overarching themes of the book is that challenges and responses during times of pandemic, both good and bad, are timeless dating back to ancient times despite modern society’s technological and medical advances.

“(We) think that this experience we’re having is so alien and not natural, but it’s not. Plagues are not new to our species, they’re just new to us. We think it’s crazy what’s happening. But our ancestors have been confronting plagues for thousands of years,” said Christakis. “And in fact, this plague is not as bad as some of the plagues that our ancestors had to deal with, but it is nevertheless following a playbook.”

That playbook is comprised of responses and factors such as fear, denial, superstition, the rapid spread of misinformation, and the undermining of science and health experts, which have long accompanied the spread of germs, according to Christakis.

Those elements of the pandemic wreaked havoc on early mitigation efforts and continue to undermine vaccination efforts. This has provided the paradox of the United States’ ability to develop and administer highly effective vaccines in record time, but inability to convince many people to get vaccinated.

“The problem is most Americans have not personally experienced serious epidemics. And so although it’s in our historical memory, and we have medical historians and epidemiologists and other experts in our society who can understand this situation, the citizen on the street doesn’t have that personal experience, so we took it lightly.”

ON THE CONTINUUM OF PLAGUES – COVID-19 COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE 

As bad and tragic as the current pandemic has been and continues to be, Christakis points out that the lethality of pathogens varies and COVID-19 was not as deadly as smallpox or cholera.

In other words, when we are beyond it, things likely could have been worse, and perhaps the next one will be.

“I want people to understand the reality of the situation,” said Christakis.  “This is why for decades, the CIA and the White House, and other organs of government have rightly seen pandemics as national security threats. They are a threat to our way of life. Just as much as we might fear human enemies, we should fear viral enemies. They could destroy our way of life.”

PREPARED FOR THE NEXT PANDEMIC? IT MAY BE A MATTER OF TIMING 

For Christakis, the level of preparedness for the next pandemic will largely come down to timing. If too long passes before the next serious pandemic, people may have collectively forgotten or downplayed the hardships and lessons presented by COVID-19.

“I fear that if the next one comes more than 30 years from now, everything will happen again. We’ll make the same mistakes again,” said Christakis. •

James Martinez is a freelance writer and content creation consultant in Metro Detroit.