Necessity is the mother of invention.

An examination of the story of David and Goliath through the COVID-19 pandemic

Oscar Petrov
7 min readDec 13, 2021

Society is an embodiment of the mind, while the nations that make up society are its subordinate parts—this is the ecosystem of humanity.

From a generalist’s point of view, it can be said that each of these nations often act of their own volition, and doing so to satisfy their own needs, just as a body’s organs do—in, for instance, amassing nutrients for protein synthesis and other functions.

By working together, however, nations are able to accomplish what ultimately seems impossible—e.g. The R&D phase for the COVID-19 vaccine took less than 8 months, more than six times faster than it took to create the Mumps vaccine.

Note: The development of the Mumps vaccine was the fastest in history before COVID-19.

This relative success in the speed of the COVID-19 vaccine development, compared to previous vaccines developments in history—which had timeline processes of 10–15 years after disease discovery, on average—shares many parallels with the story of David and Goliath.

When you look up “David and Goliath” on the web, you will immediately come across a storyline that seems to be relentlessly propagated.

It goes something along the lines of this:

David, a mere shepherd’s boy whose job was to protect sheep, was clearly no match for Goliath, a heavy infantry, seven-foot tall giant …

… though some sources suggest he was over nine-feet tall).

As the first result pledges, the source being, the story of David and Goliath is, supposedly, a lesson of courage, faith, and overcoming what seems impossible. In this version, David is likened to that of the underdog who overcame the odds of his opponent to defeat him.

Author and public speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, David and Goliath, claims a version of the story that is very much otherwise.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the story of David and Goliath, among other things, in this Ted Talk event.

In fact, in his Ted Talk, Gladwell vouches for the fact that David — despite being a shepherd’s boy whose job was to sling rocks at predators that would attack his flock of sheep — was actually far more equipped for battle than Goliath was.

According to Gladwell and other sources, slingers made up one of the three main types of soldiers in battles of the ancient times, including the war that the story of David and Goliath is predicated upon—the brief context of this war is that the nation of Israel was called upon to fight the Phillistine army (which traveled from the Mediterranean island of Crete). To avoid enormous bloodshed, both armies nominated one person from each side to fight as their representative. The army of the defeated member—David or Goliath—would surrender. While infantry soldiers were much stronger than slingers, their strength lay exclusively within hand-to-hand combat. David, however, was not intending to fight Goliath in hand-to-hand combat; rather, upon grabbing five stones from a nearby river, sling in hand (model of his sling shown in the image below), he marched on over toward Goliath ready to take him out from afar.

A depiction of the type of sling David held; Source.

Upon being taunted by Goliath, who was partly dazed at the little boy’s foolishness in coming to battle with neither armor, nor a sword, David armed his sling with a rock, spun the sling around at incredibly high angular speed—6 revolutions per second, according to Malcolm Gladwell—and hurled the stone right between Goliath’s eyes, his most vulnerable spot. As a professional slinger, David was able to hurl the rock at an astounding speed of about 100 km/hr. Moreover, David had gathered his stones from the Brook of Elah in the Elah Valley. These stones were composed of Barium Sulfate, and were roughly twice the density of a normal stone. Upon being struck, Goliath was immediately knocked unconscious (or perhaps knocked dead), after which David walked over to Goliath and cut his head off with Goliath’s own sword. In actuality, contrastingly to how the story is often told, David was not the underdog, rather a man who combined what he knew to be his most valuable skillsets with his intelligence; and Goliath clearly stood no chance in this battle against David, a slinger whose skills were extraordinarily pronounced at greater distances versus at shorter distances where hand-to-hand combat would be more appropriate.

I mention the story of David and Goliath because I believe it is very similar to our perception of COVID during its earliest occurrences. In fact, I remember the fear that shrouded many of us—experts included—some estimates suggesting that the world might experience a death toll on the scale of some of the biggest diseases in history, like the bubonic plague, before developing a vaccine. For reference, the bubonic plague took the lives of more than one hundred million people by most sources, whereas the cumulative death toll of COVID-19 has just last month surpassed 5 million people.

Granted, the death toll estimates are likely lower than expected due to limited amounts of data in less developed nations, and also, the world still experiences many variants of COVID-19 today, so that number is likely to continue rising; however, the global daily death toll today is comparatively lower than it has been in the past, and by a significant margin, as seen in the logarithmic graph gathered from Our World in Data, as shown below.

Graph depicting a logarithmic relationship between the daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people; Source.

This suggests that, with countries like China expecting to reach herd immunity by the end of the year, considering their 82.5% vaccination rate, the death toll will not be as high as it has been in the past. This makes sense, as the cumulative number of vaccinations continues to rise, as shown in the graph below, gathered from the CDC.


In retrospect

We, as a collective, ultimately were able to quickly develop a vaccine for COVID-19, with a high relative success compared to the wake of diseases that have afflicted our society in the past. I don’t say this to dismiss the struggles that we faced in developing the COVID-19 vaccine, or to dismiss the many lives that were lost and sacrificed, along with the hard decisions that had to be made (like who got to stay on a ventilator and who didn’t). I say this to share my hope for the future—my hope for a future that emphasizes collaboration and ingenuity like never before.

As the numbers illustrate, the power of working together as a collective body ultimately defies the could-be’s, the maybe’s, and the proposed inevitabilities of things that we expect to come. For, as these examples illustrate,—i.e., both the story of David and Goliath, and that of COVID-19—the outcomes are far different that what we sometimes expect, despite physical disadvantages or apparent shortcomings. Furthermore, I argue that it wasn’t so surprising that we were able to create the vaccine so quickly, just as it wasn’t so surprising that David emerged victorious from the battle.

It is true that the mutual fears of nations urged collaboration during the last couple of years, necessitating the creation of the COVID-19 vaccine. Otherwise, countries would have risked either a mutually-assured destruction, or non-attainment of a pareto optimality (the decision that optimizes for the greatest utility, given a set of choices in a game-theory matrix), which would have caused them more harm than benefit.

Moving forward, I think it’s very important that this type of collaboration persists throughout society, even when it relates to less imminent threats. As alluded to in the story of David and Goliath, we as a society are truly powerful when combining strength, resources, and intelligence, that we can accomplish any feat that we set our minds to, even when it relates to finding the cure for cancer. The only limitation, then, is ourselves.




Oscar Petrov

A curious manifestation of billions of exploding neurons. I like to think about brains + the universe. Also passionate about ethics, philosophy + human rights.