Yale professors publish critically acclaimed books about legal, social history behind COVID-19 pandemic
Yale professor of law John F. Witt ’94 and Sterling Professor of Social Natural Science Nicholas Christakis '84 publish books on COVID-19 pandemic.
Brianna Loo, Contributing Photographer
As Americans undergo dramatic changes in public life amid the pandemic, two Yale professors have published books that explain how American law has been shaped by the country’s experiences of contagion, the impacts the coronavirus will have on everyday life and social relationships with diseases.
John Fabian Witt, Davenport Head of College and professor of law at Yale, published “American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19″ in print on Oct. 27 after first releasing it as an e-book in August. On the same day, Nicholas A. Christakis ’84, Sterling Professor of Social Natural Science, published “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live” which surveys the epidemiological and social history of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with the News, Witt said that his book explains the legal history of American epidemics, from yellow fever to AIDS to COVID-19. In five chapters, Witt explores how the American experience with infectious diseases “has both shaped, and been shaped by, the law,” according to the Yale University Press.
“I wanted to communicate how the law empowers governments to do the things that are needed to take care of the general welfare during a global epidemic,” Witt said. “I wanted to describe some of the ways in which the law has tried to manage the risks of government action over time, and I wanted to think about what may be coming in the future. The history might help us see something about new developments, and what’s coming for us tomorrow.”
Witt told the News that, last spring, he was teaching a class on the history of American law, and in February, when it became clear that COVID-19 was arriving in the United States, he decided to alter the class’s syllabus to include the history of the law of epidemics. He made the recording of the class public, and the positive responses he received inspired him to write “American Contagions.”
Witt said that he aimed to survey the long history of the American experience with contagion and show readers that the law does not get in the way of the government taking action to respond to diseases like smallpox or COVID-19 — in fact, he said, the law facilitates it.
“It’s like the war power that governments have,” Witt told the News. “The power they have to respond to epidemics is deeply rooted in our history because our history is one of lots of experience with epidemics.”
According to Witt, “American Contagions” also explores the long history of tensions between government power and civil liberties. It argues that, throughout the course of American legal history, approaches to public health crises have been both authoritarian and conservative.
In a New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Szalai explained that Witt identifies two main approaches to contagion throughout American history: “sanitationism” and “quarantinism.”
“Sanitationists,” according to Szalai, have prioritized the population’s health and improving living standards. Meanwhile, “quarantinists” have favored more authoritarian and discriminatory approaches. Witt told the News that exclusion from care is the new emerging authoritarianism.
“The prevalence of each approach has waxed and waned, depending on the geographical context and particular era, but one theme that emerges from Witt’s book is how they both mapped onto existing inequalities,” Szalai wrote.
According to Szalai, while the arguments in “American Contagions” are carefully constructed, Witt arrives at a “devastating” conclusion that a decent society must have legal arrangements that are up to the task of providing for basic needs in crisis times and that the United States has “utterly failed” in that task.
Christakis’ “Apollo’s Arrow,” on the other hand, explains the epidemiological and social history of the current pandemic.
Christakis told the News that based on an understanding of virology and the history of epidemic disease, one of the key arguments in the book maintains that while this new way of living – in which avoiding physical contact, wearing masks and respecting social distancing are fundamental to halt the spread of the virus – may feel unnatural or alien to us, plagues are not new to our species.
A physician and sociologist, Christakis said that the title of his book refers to the opening of Homer’s “Iliad,” which describes the events of the final weeks of the Trojan War. The epic poem begins with a curse by the god Apollo: plague and death rain down in the form of arrows to afflict the Greek army.
“Apollo’s Arrow” begins with a description of how the virus has affected us thus far. The book builds upon the work his laboratory, the Human Nature Lab, did to track the virus in China, as well as the original SARS-CoV outbreak of 2003.
“Then,” Christakis said, “[the book] traces the ways in which pandemics typically have certain psychosocial features, such as the accentuation of hatred of others … and attempts to blame outsiders, or lies and denial.”
The US has seen increased instances of racism directed at Asian Americans during the pandemic.
Christakis told the News that one of the projects his team conducted at the Human Nature Lab used phone data to track the mobility of people in China to see how human movement was associated with the movement of the virus. The study was later published in the journal Nature. Christakis and his team have also developed an app called Hunala, “a personalized risk-assessment tool for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.”
According to Christakis, his book also explores how humans have biologically evolved to collectively combat plagues and closes with an argument about what is likely to happen in the future, in a similar vein as “American Contagions.”
Since February, the coronavirus has caused over 246,000 deaths in the United States.
Maria Antonia Sendas | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Nov. 18: Witt’s book was first published as an e-book in August and then published in print in October. The original version of this story said it was first published in October. The story has been updated to reflect the change.
Clarification, Nov. 18: A previous version story neglected to include the year of Christakis’ graduation from Yale College. The story has since been updated.
Correction, Nov. 18: A previous version of this story said Christakis was a Sterling Professor of social and natural science, internal medicine and biomedical engineering. In fact, he is a Sterling Professor of Social Natural Science. The story has been updated.