So, we’ve found ourselves living through the worst pandemic in over a century, surrounded by uncertainty and drastic change. What comes next?
In a new book, Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, Yale physician and social epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis outlines his vision for what the post-pandemic planet might look like. According to his vision, the world could soon see mass rejoicing, a resurgence of the arts, an explosion of sexuality, and the rediscovery of life’s joys – in his words, it will be like a “roaring '20s of the 21st-century.”
COVID-19 is a unique disease that is deeply specific to the 21st century: seemingly born out of a “broken relationship” with nature, seeded by international travel, realized by modern science. However, although "unprecedented" may have become the most overused word of 2020, the ongoing pandemic looks relatively typical of the countless disease outbreaks that have plagued humanity since ancient times.
“It’s very difficult for us to grasp what’s happening to us, people even seem a bit bewildered by it. We’ve come to live in this very alien and unnatural way. But it’s important to understand that ‘plagues’ are not new to our species, they’re just new to us,” Dr Christakis told IFLScience.
We’re currently in the initial stage of the pandemic, Christakis argues – a time of profound socio-economic shock, emotional pain, and cultural upheaval. Quite rightly, we’ve become scared, risk-averse, and isolated. While recent advances in vaccine development and deployment are providing optimism, we’ve still got a long road ahead of us.
“We’re not at the beginning of the end of this pandemic. If anything, we’re just at the end of the beginning,” he notes.
It looks likely that this primary “stage” of the pandemic will continue until the majority of the population is vaccinated and some sense of “herd immunity” can stop the virus from taking root in most communities. By 2022, if all goes to plan, the biological risk of the virus could be largely under control, but the legacy of the pandemic will continue to haunt us.
“It will take us time to recover from the psychological, social, and economic shock. Millions of people are out of work, millions of kids have missed school, millions of people will have some disability from the disease," Christakis explains. “There’s going to be a lot of ‘mess’ to clean up, and if you look at past pandemics that take a couple of years, let’s say to the end of 2023.”
Once much of the fog has cleared and we've started to resolve a colossal amount of collateral damage, perhaps around 2024, we will enter the post-pandemic era – a phase that Christakis is brazenly optimistic about.
“I think it’s going to be like the roaring twenties of the 21st century, similar to the roaring twenties after the 1918 pandemic. Religiosity, which went up, will go down. People will relentlessly seek out social opportunities in nightclubs, bars, restaurants, musical concerts, sports events, and political rallies,” Christakis reels.
“I think we might see some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money. We’ll see joie de vivre. We’ll see an efflorescence of the arts, like the jazz age, for example, and Art Deco. We might see entrepreneurial energy,“ he adds.
“When the plague is finally over, people rejoice – this is typical.”
This vision of the near-future is starkly optimistic given the largely grim reality of the planet’s current predicaments. However, anyone with a passing interest in history can tell you that the original "roaring twenties" did not end on a pleasant note, to say the least. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 snowballed into the Great Depression, while old prejudices and unresolved anger summoned the rise of authoritarianism, eventually culminating in the Second World War, the bloodiest war in human history. While it would be reductive to assume this century is carving down the exact same road as the last century, it’s equally naive to not look to the past for reference. COVID-19 has changed human history forever, but the path ahead remains unclear as ever.