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Norwich author’s book examines the pandemic’s impact on society

  • Nicholas Christakis ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2020 9:32:48 PM
Modified: 11/28/2020 9:32:36 PM

NORWICH — As a student of how societies function and look after their well-being, Nicholas Christakis was paying attention to the novel coronavirus for weeks before the first case was identified in the United States.

By the end of January, his lab at Yale University, which studies how human health and biology intersect with social interaction and structure, had pivoted to the impact of the new illness on communities local and global. And by March, Christakis, who was sequestered at home in Norwich, had started work on a book in an effort to explain what was about to become the largest pandemic in 100 years.

“The person on the street still didn’t seem to understand what was about to hit us,” he said in a recent interview. Christakis is both a physician who specialized in hospice care and a sociologist.

The book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, came out at the end of October and it reads as a primer on our current moment. Drawing together information from news accounts, the scientific literature, cultural references and studies of past plagues and observations from his own life, including here in the Upper Valley, Christakis has gathered up what was known about the coronavirus and its effects as of August and forecast what the coming months and years will bring. It is likely the most thorough explanation of the pandemic so far, ranging from the molecular level to the global.

Christakis’ book arrived at the start of the third wave of coronavirus cases in the U.S., and while the book’s first half is a grim reminder of the many failures to slow the spread of the disease, its second half reflects the optimism of an author who in previous books has explored how societies have evolved and overcome obstacles by working together and by persevering in the face of catastrophe. The final three chapters look ahead to the end of the pandemic and the possibilities for growth thereafter.

“That was quite deliberate,” Christakis said. “It’s not just a narrative technique. It’s what actually happens.”

Plagues end. People and societies evolve and change, often for the better in the long run, as the disease exposes weaknesses that can be patched.

Just last year, Christakis came out with Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, in which he looked at the traits healthy societies share across cultures. That book, 10 years in the making, informed the work he has done during the pandemic. Societies have developed to the point where they’re much better able to contend with a pandemic than they once were.

“We have to band together in order to live apart,” Christakis said, and for the most part, we’re doing just that. At the same time, we have the benefit of scientists who are able to fashion countermeasures against the virus, including vaccines that could be available in a matter of months.

“Our ancestors had no such luck,” Christakis said. Though he added that “we should also consider ourselves lucky that the germ is not worse.”

Human history has no shortage of pandemics, and we hold a rich store of knowledge about them, Christakis points out in Apollo’s Arrow. The title is a reference to the first section of the ancient epic poem The Iliad, in which Apollo rains pestilence down on the Greeks.

As the son of Greek immigrants, Christakis was raised on stories from Greek mythology. He refers both to classical sources, such as Homer and Thucydides, and also to pop culture, including Downton Abbey, in which a character dies from the Spanish flu (unconvincingly, in Christakis’ view) and the 2011 film Contagion. In between he brings in writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Daniel Defoe, both of whom wrote about their experiences with plagues.

“It seemed to me that the novel coronavirus was a threat that was both wholly new and deeply ancient,” he writes in the book’s preface. “This catastrophe called on us to confront our adversary in a modern way while also relying on wisdom from the past.”

In the first chapter, Christakis outlines the origins and onset of the novel coronavirus, while also looking back at previous plagues. “There was the plague of Athens in 30 BCE. The plague of Justinian in 541 CE. The Black Death in 1347. The Spanish Flu in 1918. ... Plague is an old, familiar enemy.”

To a degree, the coronavirus pandemic played out in a familiar way. Despite our many advances, particularly in medicine, in the 100 years since the 1918 flu epidemic, aspects of the human experience and human behavior have remained the same. We have met the plague with a mixture of resolve, panic, grief, denial — a whole host of emotions and coping mechanisms. While some places, notably China and South Korea, were able to control the early outbreak, many others struggled, the U.S. most of all.

Vermont has much to be proud of, Christakis noted.

“At a national level, we’ve been horribly let down,” he said.

The idea that taking measures to protect people from contracting COVID-19 has hurt the economy has been very harmful, he said.

“The economy is tanking because of the virus,” he said. People don’t go out and about when there’s a dangerous contagion.

“If anything, the actions of the government are reducing the impact on the economy,” he said, referring to virus mitigation protocols.

In addition to financial assistance, state governors urging residents to stay home, maintain physical distance, wear masks and wash hands is making it possible for people to remain somewhat productive and active while limiting their risk of illness.

Except in states where governors aren’t doing that, Christakis noted. The Dakotas have the highest per-capita death rate in the world right now, he said.

Since the book came out, Christakis, 58, has spoken of the many measures people take to protect themselves as a “Swiss cheese model.” The individual measures have holes in them, but if you stack them up, the solid parts cover over the holes and make it much harder for the virus to get through.

In the interview, he also addressed the consternation many people feel that schools remain open while other restrictions are in place. At the start of the outbreak, schools went to remote learning “because there might have been some hope of keeping the virus from getting in the community,” he said. Now the virus is here, and it’s surging, so managing gatherings among people who might be traveling from a virus hot spot to a place where it’s less prevalent has become part of the prevention regimen.

Throughout the book, Christakis refers to Norwich and the Upper Valley. He had thought, early on, that living in rural Norwich would mean he might not see the virus in the area for a while, but it didn’t work out that way. As he writes, “a medical resident returned from Italy” to Hanover in late February. “Although he was a doctor himself and had been experiencing respiratory symptoms for which he sought care, he failed to obey instructions to self-isolate and went to a large (aptly named) ‘mixer’ of graduate students and faculty, where he infected other people in my neighborhood. On early maps of the outbreak in the United States, a little red dot appeared in my safe little corner of the world, right from the beginning.”

It was a reminder that in a pandemic, nowhere is entirely safe if people still move about without taking precautions.

“It’s awful living the way we’ve been living,” he said, but we have to endure it.

All plagues end, he said, and this one will, too. When it’s over, we will live in a world dramatically changed, in small ways, such as the absence of handshakes, and large, such as the huge changes we’ve already seen in education, business and medicine, some of which are likely to become permanent, in many cases for the better.

Perhaps, he writes, we might leave behind our complacency about pandemics, and be better prepared for them in the future, and we might take science and scientists more seriously, to our lasting benefit.

“I think the plague will act like an accelerator for many societal changes,” Christakis said.

Along the way there will be considerable grief as more people know someone lost to COVID-19, and we will have to wade through disinformation and fear and isolation. The pandemic itself could be with us into 2022, and the coronavirus is here to stay, part of our landscape of illness.

And maybe the next time around, we’ll be better prepared, because there will be a next time, and it could be as deadly as the plagues of old. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague in the mid-1300s, killed between 75 million and 200 million people in Europe and Asia.

“It’s sobering to think about it,” he said. The coronavirus pandemic “should give us a healthy respect for what germs can do to us,” he added. “We’ve been given a reprieve.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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