In these uncertain times, when we wait for the weekly corona code of conduct from the Berlin government headquarters, one would like to know how long this state of emergency will last. We do not blame them for the fact that the Chancellor and the trusted virologists cannot tell us. But what does science know?
Freelance writer in the economy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
Among the barely manageable Corona literature of this year, we now fell into the hands of “Apollo’s Arrow”, the new book by Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis about the lasting consequences of the Corona crisis and the question of how we will live after it. The title alludes to an episode at the beginning of the “Iliad”: In order to avenge the priest Chryses, from whom Agamemnon withheld his daughter, Apollo sends the Achaeans the plague with his arrow. “The deadfires burned restlessly in the crowd,” says Homer. On the tenth day the Achaeans managed to appease Apollo. One is ready to meet all the demands of the gods. After all, it is better “that the people are healthy than that they die,” said Agamemnon.
Homer got away with ten days of epidemic to some extent, although it is to be feared that pandemics raged much worse then than they do today, when we have all become experts in flattening infection curves. As is well known, the epidemics of modern times last longer. The Spanish flu dragged on in three waves from the end of World War I in 1918 until 1920. The so-called Hong Kong flu, which killed an estimated two million people worldwide, dates from 1969 to 1970.
How do citizens know when the end is? Hopefully there will be a summit meeting between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister one day, hopefully not too distant, followed by an appearance in front of the federal press conference, at which they announce that Corona will be over the following Monday because either enough citizens have been vaccinated or the people are sufficiently contaminated? No, you don’t have to imagine it that way. This is where the otherwise obvious analogy ends between pandemics and wars, which ultimately lead to a ceasefire or peace treaty.
At some point the tipping point will come
Nicholas Christakis – the researcher is not only a sociologist but also a doctor – has looked at the end of previous pandemics. It shows: “Pandemics end when everyone thinks they are over.” Epidemics not only have a biological but also a social end. This has to be imagined as the result of a social discourse about the benefits and costs of life restrictions. At some point there will be a tipping point at which the population is ready to accept further risks of infection and death in order to be able to treat themselves to a “normal” social life with theaters, schools, holidays and family celebrations on the other hand. The social scientist sees what the virologist does not see: pandemics are (also) socially constructed realities that deal with dealing with death. Historically and geographically, the extent to which we are willing to tolerate car accidents, suicide rates, or substance abuse varies widely.