Keen On COVID-19

Today's conversation with Nicholas Christakis

December 17, 2020

Berkeley, California

As we crawl toward 2021, the headlines remain all about COVID. Today, the U.S. set records for both new cases and deaths with three times as many people dying now than three months ago. Emmanuel Macron tested positive, so did Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s closest advisors. Meanwhile, an F.D.A. panel endorsed Moderna’s vaccine meaning that millions more Americans will, hopefully, be inoculated in 2021.

My guest today on the daily Keen On show was the physician Nicholas Christakis, the director of Yale’s Human Nature Lab and the author of the Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus On the Way We Live. Here’s the full interview…

Given that the subtitle of Nicholas Christakis’ book is about the COVID’s “profound” consequences, I wonder if he glosses over its political implications. Yes, he’s probably right that the pandemic might, at least in the short-term, re-establish the credibility of scientists like Anthony Fauci. But I suspect that Christakis’ natural optimism - displayed in recent books like Blueprint and Connected - blinds him to the potentially catastrophic long-term consequences of COVID-19.

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.A few months ago, the Stanford historian, Walter Schiedel appeared on the show to talk about his new book, The Great Leveler. Schiedel argued that the deep levels of economic inequality that exist in America today are only ever undermined by war or pandemic. What COVID-19 has done is both expose and compound that inequality. So America today is a country simultaneously “enjoying” an unprecedented Wall Street boom, while 26 million Americans no longer have enough to eat.

I fear we’ve been so preoccupied with the always-on Trump circus to grasp how the pandemic has revealed the shameful truth about contemporary American inequality. The vaccines will, of course, eventually fix the pandemic. But fixing the country’s structural inequities - reuniting an America that has splintered into parallel economic, ontological and cultural worlds - will take a lot more than a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.


Tomorrow, I’m interviewing Evan Osnos, the author of Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now. What matters now - really matters - is whether Joe Biden has the political resolve to address the inequality crisis in America. If Biden doesn’t confront this issue, the next successful MAGA-style populist will be far less of a narcissistic buffoon than Trump. And what Nicholas Christakis calls the “profound” impact of COVID might be no less than the very destruction of American democracy.

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