Yale's Nicholas Christakis on the Pandemic Script

"A plague of this kind has been seen as a national security threat by right-wing and left-wing administrations for decades," Christakis says. "Yet I saw nothing to prepare us."


All respiratory pandemics follow a script, one that's as much social and political as it is medical or epidemiological, says Yale sociologist and medical doctor Nicholas Christakis, who has just released a new paperback edition of his authoritative book, Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (Little, Brown Spark).

"A plague of this kind has been seen as a national security threat by right-wing and left-wing administrations for decades," Christakis says. "Yet I saw nothing to prepare us." Misinformation has been spread by pundits and politicians who seem more interested in pushing ideology than science. That's why Christakis says the best way forward is through robust debate in the public square. In November, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Christakis about these ideas.

Q: Why did you write Apollo's Arrow?

A: I was trying to write a kind of handbook that would help people understand where it is that this respiratory pandemic came from and where we're going. I suppose the biggest overarching idea in the book might be this notion that everyone has, that we've come to live in this sort of crazy way right now, where it feels so alien and unnatural. But actually it's neither of those things. Plagues are an ancient part of our heritage. They're in the Bible. The Iliad, the oldest work of Western literature, begins with a plague. They're in Shakespeare. They're in Cervantes. I guess the elevator pitch is, plagues are not new to our species, they're just new to us. We think it's crazy, but it's not.

Q: You write about how all pandemics follow a script. What's the script that the COVID-19 pandemic has been following?

A: I wouldn't say all pandemics follow a script, but I would say all respiratory pandemics, which are a subtype. We have records regarding pandemics going back thousands of years. Specifically for respiratory pandemics in the modern era, we've got decent records going back 300 years and really good records going back 100 years. If you look at all these, you can divide respiratory pandemics into three periods: the immediate period, the intermediate period, and the post-pandemic period. The immediate period is the period in which we feel the biological and epidemiological impact of the virus. Then in 2022, certainly in the United States (but eventually in the whole world we need to get there), we will reach the herd immunity threshold, and then we'll cross into the intermediate phase. The intermediate phase is about recovering from the clinical, psychological, social, and economic aftershocks. Finally, sometime in 2024 approximately, we'll cross into the post-pandemic period. I think that is going to be a little bit of a party, like the Roaring '20s of the 20th century.

Q: What is the best way to combat misinformation? At various points, the government is spewing misinformation. Other times it might be Fox News or MSNBC, or it might be a politician. In a free and open society, there's going to be a lot of good and bad information.

A: We have to run the risk, unfortunately. I mean, there's nobody, no entity that I can imagine, that I would want to give the power to specify what I can say in the public square. There's nobody I can think of, other than myself, that I would trust to decide who I can listen to, who I can read, and to whom I can speak. We cannot have any kind of government exercise of such power, for sure.

Now, private industry is different. I think this is misunderstood, especially on the right. Facebook is a private company. If they want to ban Donald Trump, actually that is a conservative position that that's what they can do. Or if Twitter, as a private company, wants to say, "We have decided that certain kinds of vaccine misinformation are not allowed," that's their right, in my judgment, to do that.

I also think the public needs to understand that when scientists change their mind, that's a feature, not a bug.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.