If it's good enough for the CDC, it's good enough for CEEP
Does a zombie apocalypse have any place in disaster preparedness? I don’t mean as comic relief. Think more along the lines of metaphor, or cultural commentary. Hear me out. More importantly, hear the wisdom of someone much smarter than me, political scientist Daniel W. Drezner. His book Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Princeton University Press, 2014) is fun and fascinating. It may be written tongue in cheek (ooh, is that the wrong expression when referring to decaying corpses?) but not without substance, material, or motivation for serious scholarship. Most of the ideas in my post here were born of (well not born really, brought to life, I mean, to undead) his book. Pandemic planning, which is hard to imagine ever fading into forgetfulness, would likely encompass any preparation for zombie infestations. I would welcome thoughts on the additional considerations in medical response specific to an undead threat. This is definitely from a political and social, rather than medical, perspective. If you're ok with that, read on.
Zombies have definitely been increasing in culture and arts in the last years, much credit going to George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, a highly profitable and immensely influential work. The zombie apocalypse genre has exploded since. I think of my Netflix playlist: Walking Dead, Izombie, Santa Clarita Diet... The increased interest might be recent, but the concept is not new. Usually we read that zombies originated in the Caribbean, from African slaves in Haiti in the 16-1700’s, subsequently becoming part of voodoo religion (Mariani, The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies. Oct 28, 2015. The Atlantic). But even the ancient Greeks had them (Marinaro, Ancient Greek Zombies Discovered, Archeology, June 25, 2015), and the Sumerians (2700-2500 BC), the knights of the round table, and the early Christians (Lazarus?? Hey, not all zombies are the worse for it) (Nugent C, Berdine G, Nugent K. The undead in culture and science. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2018 Apr 11;31(2):244-249. doi: 10.1080/08998280.2018.1441216). Zombies have been around for a while. And (unless you smash their brains, as I understand from my Netflix sources), they’re not going anywhere.
Why? It might be tied in part to the metaphorical power of a good zombie story. Infectious disease is an obvious and all-too-current metaphor as the world continues to respond to and rebuild from COVID-19. But others have been applied as well...“medical maladies, mob rule, and Marxist dialectics," and the global spread of Starbucks have all been suggested as the real meaning, the warning, behind the zombie apocalypse genre (Drezner). Or “... capitalism, the Vietnam War, nuclear fear, even the tension surrounding the civil-rights movement” (Mariani). “It is clear that the zombie holocausts vividly painted in movies and video games have tapped into a deep-seated anxiety about society” (Drezner citing Peter Dendle).
Or on a more fundamental level
“...isn’t “zombie” just a silly name we came up with for a state of being we don’t understand?”
(Drezner citing Julie in Warm Bodies 2011)
So back to my original question, is there room for a post on zombie preparedness on this website? Well, if it’s good enough for the CDC, it should be good enough for CEEP, no? (See the official document, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic). And the US Strategic Command also made a counter zombie plan, CONPLAN 8888. Inconceivable as it is to think that bureaucrats or governments might have a sense of humor, one has to wonder if the point was to be funny. But no. “This plan was not actually designed as a joke,” says the latter. So why? What other purpose could there be??
Training, says the US Strategic Command. “...the use of science fiction sources does provide a compelling advantage for military planners” (cited by Redd, CONOP 8888: The Pentagon’s Plan For Defending Against A Zombie Apocalypse, All that's Interesting, July 18, 2018). To use a fictional scenario that includes actual nations or organizations would most certainly offend some. And its applicability would immediately be limited. The more specific the scenario, the harder it would be to use in different situations. And a made-up scenario to advance training might be taken in jest. So “...we elected to use a completely-impossible scenario that could never be mistaken for a real plan” (cited by Redd, 2018). The premise behind the plan might not be literal, but the principles of preparation are real.
A zombie apocalypse reflects some important, nonfictional, principles of disaster preparedness:
No boundaries. Events that do not heed national, political, or social boundaries are what disaster are all about. Zombies don’t respect borders or categorizations, the only quality needed to be a target of their destructiveness is to be a living human. “Zombies do not discriminate based on race, color, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation” (Drezner). Thus, these scenarios inevitably spread -- perhaps at a slow, lurching shuffle but they spread nonetheless -- to become widespread dangers.
Socioeconomic determinants. The disparities present in human societies are exaggerated in disaster events, and zombie apocalypses are no exception. “Countries with more advanced, prepared and robust health care and agricultural systems...will be better able to mitigate many of the zombie phenomena effects” (US Strategic Command cited by Redd, 2018).
"The plague of the undead would join the roster of threats that disproportionately affect the poorest and weakest countries” (Drezner).
Communications are a challenge in any crisis. The effectiveness of communication at every level (readiness, response, recovery) can prevent, avert, create, or exacerbate disasters. If plans—be they in preparation for, in response to, or in recovery from disasters—are not communicated effectively they can harm rather than help. And there are some special challenges with communicating about (not even to mention with, is that even possible? -- "unhh, brains") zombies. “Some countries might fail to provide timely information about zombie outbreaks until the problem had escalated beyond local control” and authoritarian regimes would manipulate information for their purposes (Drezner).
Cognitive biases. Just like you can’t have a good horror movie unless some protagonist or loveable character ignores clear signs of impending doom (ominous music, a seemingly unoccupied house with the door unlocked, a graveyard with the gate ajar, a person-in-distress (usually not dressed for the weather) requesting some kind of aid that requires you to turn your back to them, and so on), so too, a good disaster often requires some biases to be left undisturbed. Disavowal (minimizing the likely impact), idealization (it can’t happen to us), grandiosity (an outsized sense of our power to fend off crisis), projection (blaming a crisis on others), intellectualization (minimizing probabilities), compartmentalization (imagining limited impact) (Wucker) all abound in any zombie story that ends badly for the living (is there any other kind of zombie story?).
Interestingly, maybe zombies have biases too (human biases? Can’t be. Maybe previously-human biases):
“If zombies threw off their cognitive shackles and recognized that they did not need to eat human beings, then the crisis of the undead would be much less severe” (Drezner).
Black Swans. This is the perfect Black Swan event (Taleb) - something that has never happened, that is not conceivable, not possible, and therefore need not be considered in preparations of any sort... until it occurs.
“Zombies are the perfect twenty-first-century threat: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenges they pose to states are very, very grave” (Drezner).
Drezner concludes with this encouraging note, and a clear warning: “one of the most important conclusions of this book is that most of the zombie canon underestimates the ability of human beings to adapt more quickly than any nonhuman threat. Any species that invented mRNA vaccines, duct tape, smartphones and Twinkies stands a better-than-fighting chance against the living dead. Narratives about flesh-eating ghouls should still be scared, but they can also remind audiences that humans have an enormous capacity to adapt to new threats and overcome them. We will only learn to combat the policy problems created by the metaphor of the living dead by bringing the brain back in.” That is, using our brains before our brain get used. For food. You get it.
Photo by Mario Wallner from pexels.com
Drezner, Daniel W. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Wucker, Michele. The gray rhino: How to recognize and act on the obvious dangers we ignore. Macmillan, 2016.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. Random house, 2007.