Any book that tries to deal with a subject that is as current as the COVID 19 pandemic is going to face an uphill battle. It will be out of date as soon as it is written, never mind published.

With that in mind, Nicholas A. Christakis has done a remarkable job. An epidemiologist, Dr. Christakis in Apollo’s Arrow places the COVID 19 pandemic into is historical context as a plague and also provides a definitive account of how this pandemic played out and where mistakes were made – spoiler alert; there is plenty of blame to go around. Where Apollo’s Arrow really shines, however, is in its examination of the social impact, both positive and negative of COVID 19 on individuals, countries, and our culture.

Due to his background, Dr. Christakis is able to not only make sense of the confusing early decisions made by multiple parties, but also in understanding the motivations behind those decisions. There is also no coddling of the reader in Apollo’s Arrow. In a time when most people’s expertise in epidemics comes from the movie “Contagion” – and I have to include myself in those numbers – it is refreshing to gain an understanding of why more well know terms are problematic, such as R-0, and others that are less well known such as NPI (non-pharmaceutical interventions) are used and why.

While it is impossible the remove the politics of the response to COVID 19, particularly in the United States, Dr. Christakis does try his best and it is noticeable that in his initial timeline he tries to keep politicians out of the picture. That’s is not to say that there is any mincing of words; “If the United States had been a student in my class, I would have failed them,” is an early example.
The debunking of wrongheaded ideas from politicians is also a key element of Apollo’s Arrow. The Swedish solution – “herd immunity” as soon as possible, is an example. Sweden has small healthy population, universal health care, and low levels of poverty; all of which make it distinctly different from the United States. Testing and the approach to testing is also examined in depth. If you only test those with symptoms, the ratio of positives to negatives will be high. If you only test those that are worried, the ratio will below. Randomized samples are the only way to know levels of infection.

As mentioned above, it is in the social science arena that Apollo’s Arrow really shines. That “fear has its own epidemiology, its own spreading dynamics,” is one such revelatory idea. Dr. Christakis does not spare the conspiracy theorists; “There is a feeling that we can change our reality if we change the words or images – the virus is real. Reality matters.” A surprising part of Apollo’s Arrow is how positive it is, with a recognition of the successes we have had and also that our species is capable of extreme examples of altruism. We probably do not hear enough about that.

Where Apollo’s Arrow fails is in relationship to the vaccine. It points out that while there is hope, the quickest previously created vaccine as for Ebola; and that took five years. That a significant proportion of the population of the United States, and several other countries, has been vaccinated for COVID 19 by early 2021 is an almost impossible hope by the vantage point of the author at the time of writing. This is a very welcome shortcoming; however, and given the variants that now exist and the unknown levels of protection that the various vaccines may provide to these variants, we should probably not be so smug.

For anyone who wants to stand back and view the early days of the COVID 19 pandemic, and its effects on our society, it hard to imagine a better book; written without the benefit of hindsight, to read on the subject than Apollo’s Arrow. I can’t recommend it enough.