The most interesting part of Nicholas Christakis’ new book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live is, unfortunately, its title. The book was mostly written in August 2020, published in October 2020, and already felt stale by the end of 2020. On the one hand, trying to write a book about an unfolding event and make predictions about how that event will shape our future is an extraordinarily difficult task as a writer, and Christakis deserves praise for trying. On the other hand, the valuable information that this book gives us about COVID-19 can be found much more easily in other writings — with more insight to boot.
Christakis begins with the story of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussing its origins in Wuhan, China with neither excessive detail nor overzealous inference before narrating the spread of the virus throughout the US. He then builds each chapter around a different social and cultural aspect of pandemics, going back in history to the first SARS epidemic, the Black Plague, and the Spanish Influenza to help us understand how societies respond to mass outbreaks of illness. Throughout he is careful to cite his sources and bring in just enough medical and epidemiological data to help understand what happened in 2020 or centuries ago.
However, it is what Christakis does not include that is more troubling. The initial cover-up by Chinese authorities is mentioned, but once the country-wide lockdown began in China the narrative moves quickly to the US. No mention is made of crematory data suggesting massive underreporting of deaths in China or the World Health Organization’s early statements suggesting that human-to-human transmission was not happening. Travel bans are included as part of the story, but they are frequently dismissed as ineffective (despite the fact that they are often used in public health response and can be very effective if done properly.) He gives one paragraph to early recommendations given by health authorities to not wear masks, but simply opines that “[n]eeded credibility was lost over this shifting story” before moving on.
In fact, there is barely any discussion whatsoever of the initial conflicted response in America to the virus. Despite dedicating an entire chapter to the problem of discrimination and stigma that often results from public health warnings, Christakis fails to talk about the anti-stigma instinct that animated much of February 2020’s discourse about the virus. Whether it was the infamous New York Health Commissioner’s tweet on February 9th encouraging New Yorkers to celebrate the Lunar New Year, the aforementioned anti-mask recommendations, or the spate of thinkpieces more concerned about xenophobia than the virus itself, Christakis does not reflect on how authorities and experts allowed themselves to be driven by ideology as much as by science. He is eager to include many of President Trump’s incoherent and confusing statements, but the only critique he has of left-wing experts is related to their permissiveness towards Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020.
These omissions would not be so glaring if Christakis did not return over and over to the problem of people not trusting health authorities. In his chapter on how pandemics drive social and cultural change, he laments the abandonment of “the fundamental idea that it is possible to have an objective appreciation of the truth.” Like a funhouse-mirror version of 90s-era Christian Worldview course guru, Christakis grumbles about how many people still believe that God created the Earth less than 10,000 years ago and pins this on the “denigration of science.” There is consternation about rejecting “the experts” without reflection back to the early mask advice or the hypocrisy about protests.
This lack of self-awareness illustrates a much deeper and pervasive problem. Yes, we do have a problem trusting the experts and a spirit of anti-elitism that is as popular as it is monetizable. The problem, however, lies just as much with the experts. Whether it was Ebola or COVID-19, health authorities’ overconfidence in truths that were hardly objective sowed the seeds of doubt that blossomed into thorns of mistrust. Politicians and hucksters have capitalized on this and made the situation worse, no doubt, but that politicization is just as much a function of the mistrust as the mistrust is a function of politicization.
The politicization cuts both ways: those who want to feel that science is on their side are often just as eager to misread facts or rush to judgment as those whose fever dreams are fueled by right-wing conspiracy theories. A constant appeal to “the data” neglects the fact that data is always subject to the questions we ask it, and learning how to ask those questions requires wisdom that cannot be intuited from the facts alone. As the editors of The New Atlantis, whose COVID-19 coverage has been worth following from the beginning, pointed out recently, “the conceit that politics should be subservient to science has done great damage to our politics. But it has done considerable damage to science, too, by expecting it to be capable of things it is not.”
Apollo’s Arrow fails to live up to its subtitle, giving a number of interesting suggestions about how trends like remote work or remote education will move forward in the future but never committing to a bold vision for how any of them will shape our lives. (If you are interested in such a vision, read Leah Libresco Sargent here and here.) Christakis’ most decisive prediction — that a vaccine wouldn’t be available before the end of 2020 — has already been disproven, and it skews all of his other predictions that are premised on a vaccine taking its time.
The title of the book refers to a story from The Iliad of Apollo sending a plague upon the Greeks for enslaving Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests. The image conjures up visions of a vengeful deity shooting fiery arrows, but if appreciating how the “ability of the government to spend vast sums of money in the blink of an eye” counts as a “profound” impact in the “way we live” (this is really one of Christakis’ take-home points), I have some quibbles. If you weren’t reading the news closely at all in the past year and want to know some interesting facts about how this pandemic is similar to or different from other ones, this is a useful book that collects a lot of these insights. I will probably encourage my 3-year-old to read it when he is in middle school and asks me what 2020 was like.
If, however, you want a closer examination of what is “profound” and “enduring,” then you’ll have to look elsewhere. I strongly recommend Breaking Ground and The New Atlantis, two publications that are also committed to thinking deeply about drawing from the deep well of history to engage with the theological and scientific questions raised by the pandemic. There are no lies in Apollo’s Arrow, thankfully, and perhaps some people who want more facts and data would benefit from reading it. However, our society desperately needs more than “just the facts” and “trust the experts” — we need to develop and practice the virtues of discernment and wisdom. We can and should celebrate the incredible speed at which vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed, but we will continue to see the divisions and falsehoods that make science politicized if we do not commit ourselves to the pursuit of things that cannot ever be grown in a lab.