Yale physician: Aftershocks of COVID-19 will last until 2024

By: - September 22, 2021 11:08 am

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“In my judgment, we’re not yet at the beginning of the end of this pandemic — but I do think we are at the end of the beginning,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, a Yale social scientist, physician and author, who on Tuesday gave a keynote address at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Christakis’ work currently focuses on how human health affects and is affected by social interactions and networks. He was also named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2009.

Nicholas Christakis

In his speech at the annual Detroit Regional Chamber event on Mackinac Island, Christakis highlighted the cyclical nature of pandemics like COVID-19 to show that nothing we are experiencing currently is new, including the human and societal reactions to them.

Addressing the largely right-wing backlash to governments that choose to embrace social and business restrictions in order to control the virus, Christakis said, “People think that what we are doing in response to the pathogen is collapsing our economy. But that is a misreading of what is happening. It’s the virus that’s the problem, not our response to the virus.”

Quoting former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Harvard economist David Cutler, Christakis called COVID-19 “the $16 trillion virus.” According to them, the moment the pathogen showed up, it was slated to cause approximately $8 trillion in economic damage and $8 trillion in health costs — an economic catastrophe exceeding that of the Great Depression.

“This is the natural human response to the spread of a deadly pathogen,” Christakis said. “Economies require social interactions. People stop interacting when people are dying, and so economies collapse.”

This is nothing new in the history of pandemics, as was the case during the plague of Justinian 1,500 years ago, he said.

Yet another historic facet of pandemics is that they tend to inflame dark tendencies like fear, blame, denial, misinformation and lies.

“There’s nothing new about almost anything that we are experiencing here, except the fact that we are so shocked that once again we are facing this problem,” he said.

As of Monday, 995,910 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 20,700 have died from the virus. There are 42.1 million confirmed cases in the U.S. and about 675,000 deaths have been recorded nationally. Worldwide, there are about 228.8 million confirmed cases and 4.6 million deaths. 

Christakis walked through the timeline of what he believes the coronavirus will follow moving forward, starting with the present “acute” phase which he says will last until 2022.

“That’s when we’re experiencing the biological and epistemological shock of the virus as it inexorably spreads through our species,” he said, adding that he expects this winter to be bad for COVID-19, while not quite as dire as last year.

“That will take until about 2022, until everyone has either been infected or vaccinated. Very few people will escape that.”

At that point, we will reach the “herd immunity” phase in which the virus will still circulate, and still kill people, but its epidemic force will have been nullified. That will be the point where society will have to cope with the clinical, psychological, social and economic “aftershocks” of the virus, like the cleanup after a tsunami.

That “intermediate” phase of the pandemic, Christakis said, will likely last until approximately 2023 or 2024.

There's nothing new about almost anything that we are experiencing here, except the fact that we are so shocked that once again we are facing this problem.

– Nicholas A. Christakis, a Yale social scientist, physician and author

Once we finally enter the “post-pandemic” phase, Christakis said he expects there will be an economic boom similar to the “Roaring 20s” because people will seek out more social interactions and spend more money after being constrained for so long.

Looking into the future, COVID-19 is likely to become endemic like the measles in that the virus will still circulate and likely require booster shots but not pose a pressing problem. Looking centuries ahead, Christakis says we will all likely evolve some sort of protection to the virus. As the pathogen evolves, so will our resistance to it, but it will take a long time.

Another prolonged consequence of COVID-19 will come from its lingering health effects on many.

“Probably five times as many people as died will have some sort of significant permanent disability from this condition. So if up to a million Americans die, that means we’re gonna have 5 million Americans who have persistent problems – neurological problems, pulmonary problems, cardiac, pancreatic or renal problems – and those Americans will need our care,” Christakis said.

Pandemics are also exacerbated by climate change, Christakis noted, so as climate change increases, so will the impacts of pandemics on society.

Christakis also pointed to the social aspect of plagues and pandemics.

“Plagues end when everyone believes they have ended, or when everyone is simply willing to tolerate more risk,” he said. “… We’re going to get used to it,” just as we’ve gotten used to mass shootings and the opioid crisis being norms in American society.

Rather than declaring victory or burying our heads in the sand, Christakis said a wiser course of action is to “vaccinate as many people as we possibly can, to protect our society, our people and our economy, and then move on.”

“This disease is not going to leave our society untouched.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).