Past pandemics as a guide to this one

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 24, 2020

Late 19th or early 20th century spittoon. Photo by Sobebunny. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Ever wondered what behaviour change has been wrought by past pandemics?

Yale physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis has an answer. The spittoon. No one uses them the way they once did.

Until the 1918 pandemic, these great receptacles for spit were common in pubs, saloons and hotels across the United States. But when a highly infectious disease caused public spitting to be frowned upon, spittoons fell into disuse.

Dr Christakis offers this and other interesting nuggets in his new book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.

Some of his insights are a unique feature of Dr Christakis’s dual expertise – he’s a medical doctor and also has a PhD in sociology. Accordingly, the book covers aspects of epidemiology, human behaviour, social networks, technology, immunology and applied mathematics. Its title refers to a plague that befell the Achaean troops in The Iliad, which was brought about by the Greek god Apollo in response to the behaviour of Achaean leader Agamemnon.

Dr Christakis uses his clinical and sociological expertise to offer the following diagnosis on how pandemics end. Even though they seem endless at the time they’re raging, plagues do always end, Dr Christakis says. Normally, that happens when roughly 50 per cent of the population has either been infected or been vaccinated (or a combination). When we get to that point, SARS-CoV-2 will still be with us, of course, but it will lose its epidemic force.

The doctor estimates that this point will be reached by the US by January 2022. It will take a further two years to recover psychologically, economically and clinically, he says.

And by god, what a recovery that will be. The 1918 pandemic was succeeded by the “roaring 20s”, Dr Christakis reminds us, wearing his sociologist’s hat. The 2020 pandemic will be followed by a period of intense socialisation and partying at a fantastically giddy pace.

“In 2024, all of those [pandemic trends such as isolation] will be reversed,” he says. “People will relentlessly seek out social interactions” of any and every sort.

But what of behaviour change as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Christakis was recently asked on a podcast to promote his book.

He seems less certain on that point but muses that the handshake may decline in popularity for a few years even though it won’t entirely be finished as a greeting in the West.

In other words, the handshake won’t go the way of the spittoon. And masks may become an accepted part of western culture – people won’t want to wear them all the time, but if it’s flu season, they might dig their old ones out.

Truly, a pandemic changes us, both in subtle and real ways.