On April 8, 2021, Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University joined members of the Dartmouth community for another installment of “Rocky Watch”. The discussion was moderated by Jason Barabas ’93, Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center.
Christakis directs the Human Nature Lab and focuses his work on network science, biosocial science, and behavioral genetics. His virtual talk was focused on his 2020 best-selling book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. The book offers readers a global history of widespread disease, discusses the social costs of such public health crises, and concludes with Christakis’ predictions for the duration and eventual conclusion of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He began his remarks by announcing that Covid-19 as a pathogen “will surface around the Earth forever”. In his view, we will eventually enter a “post-pandemic period”, probably around 2022, but that the Covid-19 virus, now that it has been unleashed, will be around forever. People will continue to die from it; we will need to continue to be vaccinated against it.
He explained that the Covid-19 virus is a serious pathogen. It is “ten times as lethal as a typical seasonal flu” and has a “steep mortality gradient” stratified by age. He urged the young people in the audience to take the virus seriously. He emphasized that “at any age this germ increases your risk of death”. “Covid-19 is the second worse respiratory pandemic we’ve had in the last 100 years”, explained Christakis. He said we are lucky the pathogen is not deadlier.
While widespread outbreaks of disease may seem novel to us, Christakis told the audience that “plagues are not new to our species”. Even in this era of modern medicine, we have turned to “ancient” responses to the pandemic like the “cessation of social interactions”, or social distancing as it has been termed. In his view, we must combine vaccines and non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Much of the ills of the Covid-19 pandemic have been exacerbated by political and social strife. Christakis said “fears, lies, and denial are typical companions of plagues”. The nature of our country’s current political polarization has certainly fostered an environment ripe for such difficulties. Christakis also believes it is typical for politicians to deny problems exist in times of crisis.
“Another feature of plagues is grief [that takes] our lives, our livelihoods, and our loved ones”, said Christakis. During these “[times] of meaning”, it is common to see a rise in religiosity, booming applications to medical graduate programs, and political protests. He believes that the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020 were informed both by the murder of George Floyd and spillover from the Covid-19 pandemic. During times of plague, people will often try to create the society they want to live in. Christakis believes the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of this year may also have been informed by similar sentiments.
Christakis praised those scientists responsible for creating effective vaccines with such rapidity. He said we are the “only group in history to create a combatant in real-time that may change the course of the” pandemic. He described the mRNA vaccines that have been developed as “super vaccines”.
As the United States’ vaccine rollout ramps up, members of the Dartmouth community and beyond are looking towards the pandemic’s conclusion. According to Christakis,
“we are at the end of opening act of this pandemic”. He argues that this summer will be “better”. He does believe that the variants of concern could upend this timeline and prolong the “intermediate” period. Now that Covid-19 has been released into the world, it will continue to circulate for the foreseeable future. We will, nonetheless, reach herd immunity through a combination of contraction of the virus and vaccinations. The virus will continue to infect and kill people, but at the point when herd immunity is achieved “its epidemic force ends”.
At some time during 2024 we will enter a “post-pandemic” period. In the post-pandemic period, we will then begin to reckon with the medical, economic, educational, and social costs of the pandemic. Simultaneously, pent-up demand for social interaction and spending will lead to a 21st-century version of the “roaring 20s”. Religiosity will decrease and there will be some sexual licentiousness.
Christakis concluded his remarks with a quotation from another author of a plague-related book, Albert Camus. “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Written by Blake McGill ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Assistant for Public Programs