Lockdown measures, rising death tolls, and fear of spreading Covid-19 isolated Americans for a majority of 2020 – affecting people economically, socially, and psychologically.
In response to the pandemic, Dr Nicholas Christakis, a Yale University professor and social epidemiologist, has predicted a Roaring ’20s-like response from Americans in his latest book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.
This prediction was based on the human response following previous plagues throughout history, including what happened following the 1918 Spanish flu.
“During times of plague, historically people get more religious, they get more abstemious and risk averse, they stop spending their money, and they avoid social interactions,” Dr Christakis told The Independent. “And we are seeing all of those things in the 21st century United States.”
Then the human response typically reverses after people recover from the “biological, epidemiological, psychological, clinical, social and economical impact,” he said.
“People will no longer be as religious,” he continued. “People will relentlessly seek out social interactions like night clubs and bars and restaurants and sporting events and political parties. We might see a sexual licentiousness.” Also everyone will spend more “liberally” again – behaviours that were all seen in society back in the 1920s .
The catch? Dr Christakis was not expecting this recovery and response until the beginning of 2024.
“Nothing is going to be sudden,” he said. “There’s this fantasy that some people have that the vaccine is going to stop everything. That’s not true.”
Vaccine distribution only just started in the United States and around the world. Due to the lack of doses currently available, most Americans won’t likely see a coronavirus vaccine until April, May, or June 2021 – if they even want to take the vaccine. But, even after a majority of the public is offered the vaccine, the novel virus will continue to infect and kill people for a period of time.
While this might not be the news everyone wants to hear, Dr Christakis confirmed the plague will end – either through natural immunity or artificial immunity one receives through the Covid-19 vaccine. But a majority of the public would need that in order for the country to develop a herd immunity from the novel virus.
Until that threshold was met, Americans would need to continue to respond to the novel virus through mask wearing and social distancing into 2021.
“Then the epidemiological impact of the virus will be behind us,” Dr Christakis said, “but we’ll still have to recover from the social, psychological and economic impacts. When you look at the history of plagues, that typically takes another year or two.”
This pushed his estimation of full recovery to the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024.
Besides heightened economic and social behaviour in the coming years, there could also be a birth spike following the pandemic like what was seen in society after other crises like natural disasters. “The way I would describe the pandemic is that it’s a relationship accelerated,” Dr Christakis said. “Good relationships get better and bad relationships get worse.”
But not all aspects of society could likely return to what it was pre-pandemic based on how the human race has altered following past plagues.
For example, Dr Christakis said pre-1918 Spanish flu showed prevalent “public spitting” in America, which included restaurants and bars providing spittoons for customers. “But during the respiratory pandemic, spitting was rightly seen as very unsanitary,” he said, adding that behaviour ceased and never returned.
“Something like that could happen with hand shaking, for example,” he said. “Hand shaking is a normal part of our culture but other cultures greet each other without touching. So possibly hand shaking will be much less common.”
Limited business travel and working from home could also become more prevalent, given how some workers have shown they’re capable of managing their jobs remotely from the comfort of their own homes.
Dr Christakis also predicted that “decades of progress in women’s labour market participation may be undone” based on how current households respond to this virus. This prediction is based on the knowledge that a majority of families are still heterosexual couples, and men make more than their female partners “about 75 per cent of the time”.
“There are millions of couples in our society right now with small children who are sitting around their kitchen table right now and they are looking at what’s happening,” he said.
Millions of Americans are unemployed and businesses are closing every day due to the novel virus. Based on these current realities, couples could decide for the men in their household to return to work post-pandemic while more women stay home with their children.
“Five years from now we may look at all of these gender issues with respect to employment and they will be changed as a result of the virus,” Dr Christakis said. “We may find that with all of the gains in women’s compensation compared to men, gender equity, and distribution across occupations … we may have taken a step back.”
Economic and social recovery was anticipated, though not as early as people might want after the immediate epidemiological toll of the novel virus ends. But Dr Christakis implored for people to not lose sight of what was needed to reach that recovery.
“People need to understand if anything the existence of the vaccine should make us redouble our efforts to behave because there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “This virus is a once-in-a-century event. It is the second worst epidemic we’ve had in a 100 years. It’s going to kill in the end at least half a million Americans. That’s unbelievable.”
“Plagues always end,” he added. “We are lucky that we are the first generation of humans to be alive at a time when we can invent in real time a specific counter measure, namely a vaccine … it should increase the motive of behaviour.”