This plague next time: Public health scholar Nicholas Christakis on the pandemic's harsh lessons

"We should be ashamed as a nation," says Yale scholar. And COVID wasn't the worst-case scenario by a long shot

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 28, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

American flags placed on the National Mall by the Covid Memorial Project to represent the 200,000 Americans that have lost their lives due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, in Washington, DC, USA on September 22, 2020. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
American flags placed on the National Mall by the Covid Memorial Project to represent the 200,000 Americans that have lost their lives due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, in Washington, DC, USA on September 22, 2020. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has taught the American people cruel lessons about life, death, money, politics and other essential matters. These are lessons that most Americans were not eager to learn.

Among many other things, the coronavirus pandemic has stolen a cumulative total of at least 4 million years of life from the American people. Americans' average lifespans have been shortened, a loss felt most acutely by Black people (two years) and Latinos (three years). Native Americans' lifespans have likely been negatively impacted as well. Such mass death has caused an existential crisis of meaning for many Americans — and for the country as well, whether or not they want to recognize it.

The pandemic has made America's extreme wealth and income inequality even more obvious and stark. While "essential workers" were literally worked to death for low wages and the working and middle classes were devastated, the country and the world's plutocrats became even more wealthy and powerful. That outcome is yet another example of how gangster capitalism turns human misery into fortunes for those in a position to exploit the suffering.

During the pandemic, the American people were cursed — or cursed themselves — with a neofascist authoritarian president who showed little care or concern for the health, safety, and overall wellbeing of the American people. Moreover, Donald Trump and his inner circle sabotaged the response to the coronavirus pandemic, intentionally or otherwise, and made decisions that led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands. Trump and his regime far more concerned with holding or consolidating political power, by attacking democracy and the rule of law, than in providing for the common good.

The combination of the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic showed America not to be an "exceptional" nation, a "city on the hill" or a country somehow selected by the Fates for permanent greatness. Rather, the United States emerged as a mediocre and vulnerable nation, in the waning years of its almost uncontested global power.  

The coronavirus pandemic was and is a stage upon which the Republican Party and the larger neofascist movement showed itself to be, literally, a death cult. If anything, the pandemic only made them more powerful, which in itself is an indictment of the character, morality and intelligence of millions of Americans.

Ultimately, and in so many ways, the United States failed to rise to this challenge. The human cost may be as high as a million deaths, along with millions of others who will see their lifespans and quality of life negatively impacted

In an effort to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, I recently spoke with Nicholas Christakis. He is a sociologist and physician, and the Sterling Professor of Social and Nature Science at Yale University. In 2009, Time Magazine included him in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Christakis' essays and other writing have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Economist and other publications.

Christakis is the author of numerous articles and several books, including "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives" and "Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society." His new book is "Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live."

In this wide-ranging conversation, Christakis reflects on how the coronavirus and other pandemics impact the collective mental health and emotional well-being of societies. He shares his concerns about how scientific illiteracy among the American people, along with hostility to expertise, collective narcissism and information echo chambers proved to be lethal during the pandemic.

Christakis also explains the logic behind the Biden administration and the CDC's new guidelines on vaccination and why it is no longer necessary to wear masks in many situations. At the end of this conversation, Christakis offers his thoughts on the likely origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the "Wuhan lab leak" theory.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length, as usual.

There has been so much misery and destruction from the pandemic. Given your relatively unique expertise as a doctor, a social scientist and public health researcher, how have you responded to this moment? What did it feel like to be so needed in such a dire moment?

I have spent the last 20 years of my life studying how things spread in social networks, for example how germs spread, how behaviors such as mask wearing or vaccination spread, how false and true information circulate in a network. When the pandemic struck in January of 2020, I was poised to understand what was happening. In a way, it felt to me as if I had trained my whole life to be able to be useful at that moment.

As you know, I'm both a physician and a social scientist. And I had a long-standing collaboration with some Chinese scientists who had phone data from China. We were studying, for example: Who do people call after an earthquake? And what does that tell us about their social relationships in a time of crisis?

In January, when the pandemic was gaining steam, we decided to use our data to try to understand what was happening. We had data on 11 million people transiting through Wuhan and spreading throughout China. We were in fact able to forecast the timing and intensity and location of the epidemic throughout China all the way through the end of February.

As a result of this, I was really paying attention to what was happening in China in January and February of 2020, and I was simultaneously aware of the fact that in our country people seemed to not be taking the threat seriously. I was corresponding with many colleagues who are epidemiologists and were all very concerned. 

Humans have been confronting serious epidemics for thousands of years. So I decided to write "Apollo's Arrow" in an attempt to put our experiences in this moment in a type of larger historical context. I want to help the public understand what they have been experiencing. Plagues are not new to our species. They're just new to us.

How does it feel to live in a moment when expertise itself is under attack? When we have an assault on the very idea that there are experts and that mere opinions do not trump facts, learned expertise and knowledge?

On the one hand, the emergence of denial and lies in times of stress is deeply human. There has been this phenomenon of denying what was manifestly in front of our faces during pandemics for thousands of years. People have long commented on how superstitions were rife and asked why couldn't people see that their city was in the grip of a serious pandemic and so on. 

On the other hand, we are in the 21st century. We are the richest nation on earth. We have phenomenal scientists and epidemiologists. We have people who have spent their lives studying these things. Tony Fauci was writing about respiratory pandemics when I was in high school. 

Furthermore, most people will appreciate that the function of an economy is to exchange money for expertise, not just goods. When you need your car repaired, you want an expert mechanic. When you need surgery, you want an expert surgeon. People understand that some people are more knowledgeable than others about all aspects of life. People do have some intuitive appreciation for the value of expertise.

The problem is that, in my view, we are in a moment in American society right now where we have had a kind of thinning out of our intellectual lives. We have high levels of income inequality and high levels of political polarization, which have led to a kind of anti-elitism. In turn that has led to a kind of anti-expertise sentiment. 

Furthermore, both on the far right and on the far left, we have the ascendancy of the importance of subjective experience. Everyone thinks they're an expert. In this moment, so many people talk about "lived experiences" and "my truth." But there is one truth and there is an objective reality. There is also a lack of capacity for nuance in our public discourse. People think you're with me or you're against me. Things are black or white. This is immature. Most adults realize on reflection that life is full of tradeoffs and there are shades of gray.

These are all weaknesses that the COVID-19 virus has relentlessly exploited to kill us. You can't define the virus away. You can't put your head in the sand and expect that when you do that, the virus disappears. The virus doesn't care what our beliefs about it are. It just kills us.

We're going to ultimately lose as many as a million Americans to this virus, and that's a travesty. We should be ashamed as a nation. We could have done better; and we should have done better.

Given the interference by the Trump regime and Republicans on the state and local level as well, what do we actually know about how many Americans have died from the coronavirus pandemic?

I don't think the data is far off. We know that at least 600,000 Americans have already died of the virus and it is likely that more than 750,000 Americans will die from the pandemic before it is over.

There are two broad ways we can make that determination. We can count the deaths as they occur, using death certificate data and state public health department reporting. I understand that there are some controversies about what's being reported and what may not have been included. But there is not some vast conspiracy where doctors are saying, "I'm just not going to say COVID, I'm going to say diabetes or whatever." They're going to report the death. They're going to list it. I do not exclude the possibility that there's been slowness in gathering data or manipulations on the margins by various state authorities. But it would be very difficult to engineer that because there are so many people who see the data.

I acknowledge that there could be some noise in the data. But in the end, I have no doubt that we will have an accurate count of all the Americans who died from the pandemic. 

What does death on such a massive scale do to individuals and society? To their collective emotions and mental health?

This has been well understood. Marcus Aurelius talks about a plague afflicting Rome some 2,000 years ago, and he talks about how, in some ways, what was worse than the bodily sickness that was circulating was the psychological malaise that afflicted his city. That people became fearful and depressed. This is a very typical thing that happens. 

What's interesting about COVID-19 is that it is just bad enough that it harms us. It kills about 1% of the people that it infects and that have symptoms from it. That's a serious infectious disease, but it's not as bad as smallpox or cholera or bubonic plague or the types of things where people thought they were facing Armageddon.

To be clear, there is no God-given reason this virus isn't more deadly. It could have been worse. Just imagine if this virus killed 10% of the people it infected, or 30%. We would have been facing a Black Death situation in the 21st century of the United States. 

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that the general public is woefully ignorant about what science actually is. Science is iterative. You learn new things and the findings change. Instead, many people — especially on the right — respond that these findings are a "hoax" and part of a "conspiracy" when scientists update their recommendations based on new data. How do you define science? In your opinion, what has this calamity revealed about the public's understanding of science?

First of all, science is a set of principles and tools we use collectively to try to understand the truth of the world. It's a method. It's grounded in empirical observation, in careful measurement, in testing conflicting ideas and in an effort to prove or disprove truths about the world.

Now, just as you said, the fact that scientists change their mind is a feature, not a bug, of science. That is exactly what we want scientists to do. It is religious figures for whom there's an accepted canon and who do not change their minds. Scientists revise their opinions, and when they do so it is to be expected. 

Our political leaders and our scientists could have and should have done a better job of trying to educate the American people about this right from the beginning. What I would have done a year ago is that I would have put scientists — especially ones who were good at communicating to the public — right out in in front of the public eye. I would have tasked those scientists with explaining in layman's terms what was happening. 

We could have tried to educate the public about the scientific method and the concept of exponential growth, for example, so the public better understood how fast the disease was spreading. More generally, one would have to say, "Here's what I believe. Here's why I believe it. Here's my evidence for my belief. Here's how confident I am in my belief. Therefore, I'm recommending this course of action. Here's what we know about the virus. We know it's admitted through the air. Here's why we know that." 

Early on, we might have said, "Right now, we think it's transmitted on surfaces." But then later, we would have learned that was not true, and scientists could say so and updated their statements. Politicians and scientists could model good behavior by saying, "I'm revising my recommendations because here's the new evidence that has come in and here's my updated confidence in my beliefs."

If scientists and other experts had spoken to the American people in that way, I believe it would have increased their confidence, not decreased it. I would have combined that approach with a call to action, maturity and shared sacrifice. Unfortunately, none of that was done. We were lied to by the Trump administration and others.

What is your response to the Biden administration and the CDC's decisions regarding masks and the vaccine? To me, trusting strangers not to wear masks if they are vaccinated is perilous at best and potentially disastrous at worse. 

When the CDC recommended a policy that if you're vaccinated you can go mask-free, and if you're not vaccinated you should wear your mask, at first I thought it was a mistake. I did not understand why the Biden administration and the CDC did it. I thought it was bad messaging from a public health perspective and confusing. I also found the policy to be an oversimplification of the problem, because the vaccines, while good, are not perfect. It's prudent, even if you are vaccinated, to wear a mask in a grocery store, for instance.   

But then I thought to myself, "Well, maybe from a public health point of view, their No. 1 agenda is to get as many Americans vaccinated as possible." If the CDC communicates that a big benefit of getting vaccinated is that you can throw away your mask, that's something which is very easy to understand. So I thought maybe that was their rationale.

In fact, some studies have actually shown there was a rapid increase in vaccinations after this announcement. That is the only rational interpretation I can give to that CDC policy. Public health recommendations always involve difficult, utilitarian tradeoffs. The recommendations you would make to the public, and which are best for the nation, are not necessarily the same ones that you would make for yourself or your family.

What about all the theories about the origins of COVID-19? Did it escape from a lab in China? Is it a biological weapon? Did it jump species? 

I am happy to go where the data takes us. I think the coronavirus pandemic was most likely caused by a zoonotic leap: It leapt naturally and unseen from an animal to a human. It is also possible that it was an accidental release from a lab. It is extremely unlikely that COVID-19 was genetically engineered. We know this from genetic analyses of the RNA sequence. 

Again, it is possible that it was an accidental leak from the lab. We can use scientific tools to make the ultimate determination about the virus's origins. But now these questions have become very politicized. And of course, the Chinese government is not known for its transparency. Therefore, we may never know the answer to this question.

I have repeatedly advocated for a truth committee to expose the many crimes and misdeeds of the Trump regime. That would include the response to the coronavirus pandemic. What type of public accounting would you believe is needed?

I would just call it a COVID commission. I have been part of a group of people based at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins advising the formation of such a group.  The purpose of such a commission would be to learn what can we as a nation do better. The commission would have to be both backward-looking and forward-looking. The forward-looking part is essential. We can do better as a nation. The loss of life in our country is enormous. 

The American people need to better understand exactly how many people have died and will die. I also do not think that most Americans yet understand how just much our economy has suffered. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and the economist David Cutler published a paper several months ago called "The $16 trillion Virus." They estimate that the coronavirus pandemic caused $8 trillion in damage to the health of the American people in death and disability and illness, and $8 trillion in economic damage.

This is a once-in-a-century economic catastrophe. It's as if from the moment the virus arrived on our shores, $200,000 of wealth in every family of four in our country had been destroyed. That is akin to burning millions of people's houses down. 

A society cannot easily endure such things without ramifications. What we need to understand is, as bad as that was, it could happen again. In fact, it will happen again. There is scientific evidence suggesting that these pandemics are coming more frequently, and what happens next could be worse than the coronavirus. A commission would be a very helpful step in preparing for and hopefully avoiding such dire outcomes as we experienced this time.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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