- Nicholas Christakis is a professor who studies how real-life social networks shape our health and behavior.
- At Yale now and formerly at Harvard, his many years of epidemic research have included a dead-on prediction of the H1N1 swine flu last decade and a close mapping of the Chinese COVID-19 outbreak using cell phone data.
- His new book on the novel coronavirus and its social effects covers 120 days this year. "Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live" published Tuesday.
- The book examines the history, psychology, and economics of epidemics, including the current one.
- Christakis says "normality" won't resume until 2024, by which time we'll have a "reversion to more stereotypic gender roles," among many other things.
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The first time I spoke with Nicholas Christakis was early in the last decade, for an article on how innovation spreads like the flu. The theme of the piece was that social networks are a hidden force within our lives: We quit smoking in groups, lose weight in groups, even get jobs in groups.
Then a Harvard Medical School professor, Christakis argued that what held for the flu also did for innovation: The more central you are to a range of networks, the more contagion you'll be exposed to. Insights, news, disease all spread the same way.
Christakis and his Harvard colleagues had been making waves in academic circles for an eerily accurate prediction on another contagion, the H1N1 swine flu virus. They used network science to predict the spread of that disease across the Harvard campus and their prediction bore out, day by day.
His H1N1 work was based off the same core insight that the more central you were to a social network (or popular, you might say), the more likely you were to come down with it. (He's since helped develop an app that helps predict the COVID-19 risk level in your social network.) That's also why, he says, politicians and celebrities were among the first to publicly get coronavirus in the US: Not just because they're famous, but because they're shaking so many proverbial hands.
This January, Christakis and his lab — now at Yale — were contacted by some long-standing colleagues in China with a similar research opportunity to his H1N1 breakthrough: Using cell phone data to track the movements of people across the country during the outbreak of the coronavirus. They worked nonstop for three weeks and submitted to the prestigious journal Nature in February; the paper was published two months later in April.
"By February, the virus had my full attention and it was clear to me that it was going to be a serious pandemic," Christakis says. "And I got very disillusioned with what I thought was the lack of preparedness on the part of our country." So he started sending out Twitter threads, providing epidemiology 101 lessons to the public. Business leaders started contacting him. And he thought: Why not write a book about this?
On Tuesday, that book published: "Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live."
"I started at mid-March working on the book in earnest. And so basically 12 hours a day for 120 days in a row, I wrote this book," he says. "What I've been doing since January is basically just thinking about the coronavirus."
When Christakis and I got on the phone for another interview this October, the physician-sociologist unpacked how psychological habits like fear and denial are "handmaidens" of plagues, what effective leadership public and private leadership has looked like over the course of this perilous year, and why normal isn't coming back until 2014. (The interview has been condensed and edited.)
You observed that the US "put blindfolds rather than masks on in the spring." What does that reveal about problematic patterns of thinking?
Part of the book is a kind of review of the history of how human beings have coped with epidemic disease. And in many ways, while the way we came to live in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, you know, feels very alien and unnatural to us, it's actually neither of those things, because plagues are a part of human experience.
What happened in 2020 was, was not new to our species. It was just new to us. It feels so shocking to us that we have to do all of these things, but it's not. And in fact, when you look at thousands of years of plagues, one of the consistent features you find in addition to the fact that people have been employing physical distancing, there's also been this feature of denial and lies.
You could even almost argue that these psychological properties — grief, fear, and lies and denial — are kind of handmaiden to the germ. The denial and lies trail the germs, wherever they spread. So I'm not surprised that as a nation, both our leaders and people on the street, have been very tempted to pretend that nothing has happened. This is typical.
Unfortunately, and there's another wrinkle which has to do with the intrinsic mathematics of epidemic disease, which is this notion of exponential growth. And what happens, as you know, is that in epidemics for a very long time, it looks like nothing is happening. You know, you go from one death to two, to four, to eight, to 16, to 30 to, if each of those doublings takes a week, you know, you have weeks where it doesn't seem like anything is happening.
And the irony here is that even if the experts know that disaster is going to strike, it's a very difficult public health communication challenge, because you go out to announce an epidemic is among us, but that's very discordant with the person on the street's experience because they look around and they don't see anything happening at the moment when you're telling them something is going to happen, and at the moment where they actually should take action. So this also feeds on the denial, right?
It reminds me a little bit of disruption theory in business, and like Blockbuster and Netflix. You have this shared reality that gets socially reinforced: 'It's not happening here.' And then everything changes.
Yes, yes, that's right.
In your telling of the cultural history of disease, it becomes clear that some things, like plague, happen at a rhythm outside of the timescale of a single human life. How can we better make decisions in cases like those? It seems consonant with climate change.
Yes, yes. The pandemic and climate change have the same economic structure, but a very different temporal horizon. So you're absolutely right to draw an example because they require collective action. And yet, you know, a plague happens very fast and actually, expert warnings about plagues are either confirmed or disconfirmed very rapidly, whereas expert warnings about climate change, it can take decades to confirm.
We have respiratory pandemics, you know, every 10 or 20 years. Every 50 or 100 years, you have a serious pandemic like the 2019 coronavirus pandemic. It's the second worst that we've had in 100 years, it's worse than 1957. It's almost as bad as 1918. And that is outside of human memory. So we have to rely on culture and science to transmit this knowledge.
Now, this, in turn, relates to how an epidemic is a collective threat.
You know, you can wear a mask or self-isolate, that doesn't actually fight the epidemic. Individuals acting in a disorganized way is not effective. What you need is coordinated action by leadership or the state. It's a little bit like if we were being invaded by an army, you could take your gun and go to the frontier, but that's pointless. And similarly, lots of people could take their guns and go to the frontier independently. But that's also pointless. You need to organize the defense when you're being attacked by an army. And that requires leadership. And here, unfortunately, I think our country has failed.
Who do you think, who do you think the most successful leaders through the pandemic have been? You speak very highly of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand.
Well, she happens to be the leader of a wealthy island nation. So, you know, she could close her borders, but she did this, to her credit. She did do that. Of course, South Korea, Taiwan were very capably led. Greece had a very capable response.
What effective leadership do you see in business?
I think those people in Silicon Valley and Seattle were fairly well informed about what was happening, so they began to take some action.
A number of companies began to realize, for example, one of the things that's been changing is this notion of
, sick leave for hourly workers. You know, you don't want in a time of contagious disease, if your sick leave policy for hourly workers is you don't get sick leave, that's bad because they come to work sick and spread the disease. So, you know, I think there were a number of companies that sort of thought differently, when there's a contagious disease around, you know, we're flexible about working from home.
There's also economic planning, like recognizing how this would affect supply chains and began to make provisions to protect their suppliers and their supply chain. If you think far enough ahead, you can be shrewder at the self-protective actions you take.
What do you think the long-term impact on organizations will be?
Well, first of all, you have to realize this type of disease transmission is exceedingly rare, right? It's not common.
In other words, I don't think we're going to have to reorganize how we work forever; 1918 didn't reorganize how we work forever. But, of course, for a few years, we're going to be gunshy. We're going to have extra hygiene and other measures. I have no doubt that working from home will be attractive for a whole host of reasons, the least of which is pandemic control.
Firms are going to say, 'Hey, we don't need to rent as much space. Let's keep our workers at home.' Employees are going to say, 'Hey, I don't need to commute more.' And so these will be the reasons people will continue to work from home, not avoiding contagion, in five years' time, let's say.
What other legacies of the coronavirus do you see? Economically?
I think we're going to have and are having a major recession. I don't see any rapid economic recovery. I don't think you can't have normal social and economic activities when there's a deadly germ of point. People aren't stupid. I mean, even if you tell them, 'Nevermind the germ,' people aren't going to travel or stay at hotels or go to restaurants or, or, you know, engage in the same type of economic interactions. We have many millions of people out of work now, and many millions of firms out of business. I think we're, unfortunately just at the end of the beginning of the pandemic. I think we have many more deaths to go. It's in the nature of respiratory pandemics, that they come in waves.
We're going to have a second wave, which we're having now. And we'll surely have a third and perhaps a fourth wave. I don't think the vaccine is going to save us from the initial impact.
What are the phases?
I think there's three phases of this pandemic. There's the first phase, which is the acute phase and, uh, which is what's happening now. And in order to reach the level of herd immunity, which is the number of people who are infected is sufficiently large, such that it's difficult for the germ to keep spreading — in other words, if you get sick, most many of the people you interact with have been sick and are now immune — for this virus, that level is probably around 45% and only about 10% or 11% of Americans are, you know, so far.
So we have quite a long distance to go to reach herd immunity. So that takes us to 2022, approximately, or we're going to get a vaccine in 2021. Once we invent a vaccine, it's unclear how safe or effective it will be. And it has to be distributed. It has to be manufactured, distributed, and most importantly, accepted by people. That's all going to take time, at least a year, I would say. So either way, we get to 2022, when we're going to be living in this changed world, you know, we're wearing masks and avoiding gatherings and working from home and all of that. So I just don't see how we're going to avoid a serious economic impact of this. And we've already spent trillions of dollars.
So 2022, we'll either have reached herd immunity or have a vaccine, but people aren't going to suddenly return to normal. They're going to be shellshocked. And if you look at previous pandemics, it typically takes a couple of years for recovery. That's the intermediate period, the psychological and economic recovery. Now, I think beginning around 2024, you know, we're going to have an extraordinary resumption of normality. You know, people will, there'll be political rallies and mass gatherings, and people go to restaurants and nightclubs all this pent-up, deferred social interaction.
That's so different from these estimates of next summer as a return to office date for many companies.
I still think we're going to be in the thick of it then. This past summer was a little bit more relaxed and next summer we'll have the benefits of summer. And so it'd be a bit more relaxed, but then we'll have the fall after that, which I think will be a bit bumpy, you know, a year from now. I think as we enter 2022, I think, you know, things are going to begin to stabilize from a biological, epidemiological point of view. But we'll have had huge economic disruptions.
One of the things I think is going to happen is you're going to have a reversion to more stereotypic gender roles. In part, I think we'll have undone 10 or 20 years of women's labor force participation because of the epidemic, because you know, many, many households are, you know, making very rational decisions, you know, on average, men still make more money than women. On average, women still prefer to care for children more than men when school's closed. The typical heterosexual couple says, 'Okay, you know, the man will participate in the labor market. The woman will stay home with the kids.' Of course, there are many single-parent families or many same-sex families or many families without children. But ff you aggregate that over the whole population, you wind up having a reversion to more traditional gender roles as a result of the pandemic, right?
So there's going to be a lot of reverberations. I think the epoch when people fly across the country for a one-hour business meeting is going to be over. Why would anyone do that in two years when we've all learned how to use Zoom so effectively?
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