Coronavirus Q+A with Nicholas A. Christakis, author of Apollo’s Arrow

Renowned sociologist, public health expert, and bestselling author, Nicholas A. Christakis is uniquely qualified to lead us through and exploration of what it means to live in a time of plague. His book, Apollo’s Arrow, offers a riveting account of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as it swept through American society in 2020, and of how the recovery will unfold in the coming years.


He recently answered some of Twitter’s most burning questions about COVID-19. Check out his Q+A below.


A lot of energy continues to be given to the mask debate, but I think we’re past the point of that being the best way to control the growing number of cases. Are we close to needing new stay-at-home orders in the US?

Masks have been known to be effective in fighting respiratory epidemics for 100 years. But masks alone are not enough. Multiple layers of defenses are needed, as outlines in this thread regarding the Swiss Cheese Model.



To control the resurgent epidemic in the USA (and elsewhere), it is likely that several NPI (“non-pharmaceutical interventions”) will need to be re-implemented, but it is hard to foretell whether the public and politics will exist for renewed stay-at-home orders.


What would ideal federal response have been starting in, say, January when it was clear a global pandemic was coming? How would life be different today?

I am ashamed of how bad our great nation has done in combatting COVID-19. When China locked down its country, on January 24, 2020, we should have used that time to better prepare. China essentially put 930 million people under home confinement. Along with my Chinese colleagues, we explain this further in a Nature paper from April.



In essence, China felt that SARS-CoV-2 was so powerful that it had to detonate a “social nuclear weapon.”  When we saw what was happening in China, the US should have spent February and March preparing: making PPE, radically upgrading testing capacity, and engaging in public health messaging to prepare the American people for sacrifice. If we had done these things, we could have saved many lives, and bought time to get better prepared.


To what extent are we humans capable of changing our way of life and exist without concerts, weddings, malls, schools if needed for a year or two?

I do not think we will be harmed more than we benefit from engaging in such physical distancing. It’s truly unfortunate that we are faced with this difficult challenge. But we must do it, and we can do it. People have always had to accept this unpleasant reality of having to spread out during times of plague—for thousands of years. Why should our time in the crucible be any different?


Do you think NYC will go back to the way it was pre-COVID? If so, when?

Yes, I think that major cities, including NYC, will eventually return to normal, albeit some time in 2024. While it is the case that people have always fled cities for the country during times of plague, the appeal of cities is so great that people always returned. I think that the COVID-19 pandemic will temporarily reverse worldwide trends of globalization and urbanization, but the rationales for these trends are so compelling that we will return in a few years.


Should pre-teens be going to school in person now? Hanging out with friends outdoors? What pandemic metrics should parents watch to determine when these behaviors might be “safe enough” to do?

There is no life without risk during a time of a deadly epidemic, such as COVID-19. All choices during times of a serious epidemic require assessments of relative costs and benefits. This is a reality we must maturely face and accept. So, I think hanging out with friends outdoors, ideally at 6 feet, is relatively safe (though local SARS-CoV-2 prevalence is a factor, too). And I think that, for most locales in the USA at present, it is probably better for *high-schoolers* to have remote classes.


What is the psychology behind conspiracies?

Lies (and superstitions and conspiracy theories) are such an inexorable feature of plagues (for thousands of years) that one might even say that they are a part of what it means to be a plague. Just as pathogens spread from person to person during deadly epidemics like COVID-19, lies follow right behind. Lies are a squire to plague, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In Chapter 4 of Apollo’s Arrow, “Grief, Fear, and Lies,” I explain why this is so. One reason is that it is more consoling to us poor victims of a deadly contagion to imagine certain (false) explanations for our predicament than other (true) ones.


Even if not as deadly as 1347 or 1918, do you think that because COVID-19 will be the first modern (televised, tweeted, etc) global pandemic—it will have larger lasting impact for society? It will be able to be remembered differently?

Yes, I do think that COVID19 might be remembered differently, in part because of the superior (electronic, real-time) documentation of our predicament. And yet, the Black Death had quite an impact on collective memory, as I also discuss in Apollo’s Arrow, deploying what was, for its day, cutting edge (artistic) communications.


I also think we’re now more aware of the periodicity of global pandemics. We understand that they recur every 10-20 years, and have *serious* recurrences every 50-100 years (though there is no reason a serious one could not recur sooner).