Nicholas Christakis and Understanding Our Year With COVID-19

An important new book, Apollo’s Arrow, precisely targets what America got right in its COVID-19 response, and where it must do better next time. And there will be a next time.

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Nicholas Christakis’ Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live is an outstanding book. I agree with the eminent historian of ideas Niall Ferguson, who called it “magisterial” in his review in the Times Literary Supplement. I could not recommend it more highly. It’s not only the most readable of the books published on COVID-19 (and other plagues) in the last year, but the most insightful, most thoughtful, most wide-ranging and — if this doesn’t sound perverse — most delightful.

Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, with appointments in the departments of sociology, ecology and evolutionary biology, statistics and data science, biomedical engineering, and medicine.  In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. His previous book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, spent time on the New York Times bestseller list. He’s an optimist.

A Second Draft of History 

Here is what Apollo’s Arrow offers. A thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of what went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic, but without righteousness or judgment. An excellent explanation of how a virus works, and how this one found its way around the planet. An excellent explanation of the development of coronavirus vaccines. Careful speculation about the site and manner of origin of COVID-19. A thorough but never tedious survey of the history of epidemics. A thoughtful consideration of how some of the basic institutions of American life are likely to change thanks to the pandemic, particularly the digital delivery of medical expertise and the future of higher education. In spite of the gravity of the subject, Apollo’s Arrow is often whimsical, ranging far beyond the usual confines of a treatise on a major disease. 

For a book like this, issued by a major publisher, to appear in time to be useful, requires some very fast research and writing, but Apollo’s Arrow shows no signs of haste either in the structure or the writing. Perhaps the most unsettling paragraph in the book is when, early on, Christakis steps back in horror to assess the damage so far:

Lonely deaths. Families unable to say goodbye to loved ones or perform proper funerals and acts of mourning. Destroyed livelihoods and stunted educations. Bread lines. Denial. Fear and sadness and pain. As I write, on August 1, 2020, over 155,000 Americans and over 680,000 people worldwide have died, and many more are still uncounted. 

Counting the Cost in Human Terms

That was then. Christakis’ despondency — at 150,000 dead — seems almost naïve in retrospect. As I write this review, on March 13, 2021, 545,544 Americans have died, 30 million have been infected. The number who have died worldwide now approaches three million. By now, just over 100 million doses of the vaccine have been injected into 19 percent of the American people. We are likely to reach herd immunity within the United States sometime late in the summer or early fall. 

One of Christakis’ implied conclusions is that this pandemic, no matter how much more we know about epidemiology than our forebears and no matter how much fabulous technology we bring to bear on it, is going to run its course, like all previous pandemics. At some point a couple of years from the onset the two dynamics are going to meet in the middle: vaccines from one direction and inevitable herd immunity from the other. 

Any survey of the historical literature reveals that virtually all societies respond to epidemics in more or less the same way. At first the government denies that there is a problem. Then it downplays the severity of the crisis and searches for scapegoats to blame. In anything but autocratic systems, the people resist complying with public health protocols until it is nearly too late. Shysters, mountebanks, and charlatans suddenly emerge to exploit public fear. They prey particularly on the poor and the least well-educated members of the community. When the state just begins to get on top of the epidemic, the citizens are so tired of being locked down that they rush prematurely into the public square, bringing on unnecessary additional waves of infection. In the end, most societies fail to learn the lessons of the social crisis they just endured. If you read Camus’ superb The Plague, written 70 years ago, you see the pattern we have followed in something that approaches a Pavlovian manner.

“The challenges and responses, both good and bad, are timeless,” Christakis writes. “Plagues reshape our familiar social order, require us to disperse and live apart, wreck economies, replace trust with fear and suspicion, invite some to blame others for their predicament, embolden liars, and cause grief. But plagues also elicit kindness, cooperation, sacrifice, and ingenuity.”

Classical Insights into Contemporary Times

The title of Christakis’ book comes from the opening of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. The Greeks, who are besieging Troy on the coast of Asia Minor, capture the daughter of a local priest. When they refuse to return her for ransom, her father prays to the god Apollo to punish the Greek army for its intransigence. Apollo, who is the god of many things, including plagues, uses his divine bow to shoot a deadly plague into the Greek camp. It starts with dogs and soon moves on to humans. 

Christakis has a deep grounding in the humanities. He refers to such disparate writers as John of Ephesus, Petrarch, Pope Clement VI, Marcus Aurelius, Procopius, as well as the usual suspects — Camus, Thucydides and Defoe. Apollo’s Arrow is a literary and historical tour de force.  

Given his outstanding academic credentials, Dr. Christakis’ science is predictably lucid and plain-spoken, but in addition to that he has read all of the pandemic literature — from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1721) to Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague). In fact, at a certain point in the central chapters of Apollo’s Arrow, I was struck by the nearly exact parallels between Defoe’s fictional re-creation of the great plague of London in 1665-66 and Christakis’ nonfiction account of the coronavirus of 2020. In both cases, the rich and the privileged flee the infected cities with their characteristic sense of entitlement, often carrying the epidemic into the countryside. 

The poor, as always, take the brunt of the crisis, not only because they don’t have anywhere to flee or the money to do it, but because they wind up being the frontline workers who attend to the basic needs of the privileged who are largely indifferent to their suffering. There is no working from home for food servers, nurses, graveyard workers or teamsters either in London of the 17th century or New York. Death overwhelms the community. Bodies are stacked like cordwood. People are buried in mass graves. The social order begins to crack.

Our Plague Could Have Been So Much Worse

The parallels are exact, chilling and depressing. Have we learned nothing since the Black Plague of 1348, since the London plague of 1665, since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918? The answer is, of course, yes. But also no. Today we possess epidemiological knowledge and a pharmaceutical mastery that are little short of miraculous. Christakis marvels that the vaccines were developed and tested in well under a year. The victims of the yellow fever epidemic that literally decimated Philadelphia in 1793 had no understanding of bacteria, virus, the agency of the mosquito or the human immune system. As Thomas Jefferson wryly noted, they barely understood the circulation of the blood. The African American community of Philadelphia was pressed into the most basic services because the “experts” assured them (or at least themselves) that the disease was less contagious in the Black community than among white Americans. 

Dr. Christakis has a particular distaste for scapegoating. The evidence proves that COVID-19 came to the United States via Europe, not directly from China. “It became clear through … genetic analyses that the greatest risk to Americans was from domestic importations from other U.S. states rather than from foreign arrivals.” Calling it the “China virus” or suggesting — at the highest levels of government — that the virus was deliberately released by the Chinese to damage or destroy America is not only irresponsible, but it diverts the national attention from focusing on remedies and amelioratives.  

Before February 2020 almost all of us shared the somewhat glib assumptions of such futurists as Yuval Harari (Homo Deus) and Stephen Pinker (Enlightenment Now), who have recently argued that plagues are a thing of the past, that modern chemistry and such magnificent entities as our Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University, and scores of other public health research and policy institutions are now able to climb on top of emerging viruses within months or even weeks. 

What’s amazing about the coronavirus pandemic is how flat-footed the world was when the crisis went global in the spring of 2020. The United States made things much worse than they had to be — when our leaders failed to model social distancing and mask protocols; when even the venerable CDC was guilty of mixed messaging; when the U.S. government failed to set up the kind of testing and contact tracing protocols that might have helped to contain the spread of the disease; when President Trump made poor use of his daily briefings. 

Swiss Cheese for What Ails You

In explaining our weak national response to the pandemic, Christakis employs the Swiss cheese trope, a perfect metaphor he borrows from psychologist James T. Reason. If you have a deadly virus and your only response has some big holes in it like a slice of Swiss cheese, you are not going to protect yourself adequately. The virus will get through. Social distancing helps, but that alone is not enough. If you add masks to social distancing, your hope is that the hole in that layer doesn’t line up with the holes in the previous layer. As you add more layers — hand washing, temperature screening, true COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, transparency in public pronouncements, etc. — you make it less and less likely that the virus will get through. With a multilayered policy based on solid science, you can add enough filters to block the virus entirely or nearly so. Christakis believes our national response more closely resembles a slice or two of Swiss slapped haphazardly together rather than the multiple-screen approach that might lead to happy results. “Americans had put on blindfolds when they should have put on masks,” he writes.

It is always much easier to write intelligently long after the fact than in the midst of a national or international crisis. Add to this the unrelated political and constitutional crisis the United States was lurching through in 2020, and the widespread social unrest and national crisis of conscience that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. It is remarkable that any mindful and alert person can think straight just now. Dr. Christakis has cut through all of this to provide us an important, useful and extremely well-written book. Every American, certainly every policymaker, should read Apollo’s Arrow.

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Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live 

Nicholas A. Christakis

Little, Brown Spark, 384 pages, Oct. 27, 2020, $21.24


You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.

Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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