31 August 2015

Pandemics, Preparation and Zombies

One of my proudest moments in writing-related research was the day the president of the World Health Organization tweeted me about H7N9. My friends and family were all taking a little break from answering my calls so I could update them on the latest snippets of data regarding the avian flu that I had translated from Chinese blogs. My obsession had me posting details about the might-have-been pandemic 24 hours before the WHO regarded them as official and rendered me useless in a conversation about anything else. At 3AM, I was scouring the flu tracker forums and really wondering if this was going to be the one.

Can you fault a writer for having a vivid imagination?

I'm not comfortable with the horror of pandemics. The suffering and the death do not appeal to me on some morbid level of fascination common among the proudly twisted writers that create gory disease scenes to evoke panic and fear, which is fine if that's your thing. But, it helps distance us from the inevitability of the threat and the politics of preparation.

And that is a very bad thing.

Some outbreaks of disease can be regionally contained, because they are not transmitted from one person to another through the air. Malaria is contracted through mosquito bites. Cholera infects people who drink contaminated water. Small pox, while considered eradicated, could be spread by body fluid contact and being coughed on.

The black death and the various deadly flus have proven more virulent, but while we think of the bubonic plague as particularly deadly, it's easier to forget how the influenza viruses morph into new strains. Take a strain with a high mortality rate and put it in a hospital with a strain that is highly contagious and life as we know it is over.

That may sound really dramatic, but it's happened before and we're not ready if it happens again.

Maybe that's why we worry so much about zombies. You can shoot them. You can burn them. You can cut off their head with a chainsaw. Everyone has probably heard that it's not a matter of if there will be another pandemic, but when it will happen. That's a hard thing to face when you know globalization spreads everything, especially disease, around faster.

If you had to choose between being attacked by zombies or an influenza virus with no available vaccine, which would be easier to fight?

Zombies. And you'd feel safer fighting them, because you could see them. The reality of a pandemic is much less about bad ass fighting techniques and much more about logistics and quarantines.

What you need for the Zombie Apocalypse:

1. Weapons
Flu Virus
2. Armor
3. Slower moving friends

What you need for a pandemic:

1. Shelter
2. Three months nonperishable food supply
3. Water
4. Stockpile of medications
5. N95 masks
6. Dish soap and bleach
7. Water filters
8. Safety goggles
9. Lots of plastic medical supplies
10. AM/FM radio
11. Coffee

Unlike zombies, people carrying the deadly influence virus will look like reasonable friendly people. And when a pandemic erupts, they're going to want you to carry on with your normal life. Go to school. Go to work. Go shopping for groceries. But, they could kill you and everyone you love without even coughing. With person to person transmission, the flu would likely spread worldwide in three weeks.

People who have the ability to create a self-imposed quarantine early on and can maintain it longer will survive though few have the rural retreat and 3 to 18 months resources to outlast the entire threat. And I suspect that most people will have a family member that needs a prescription drug which can't be stockpiled. Meaning entire families could contract the flu and die, because one person attempts to get a regulated medication for someone dependent on it.

During the plague that killed 30-60% of Europeans, healthy people often roamed the streets drunk, riotous and indulging in everything they could as if it were their last moment on earth. And this was a time when hand held cannons were just beginning to be introduced. What if they had guns manufactured on an industrial scale? No matter what your position on gun control, it's hard to imagine that all the reckless jerks with guns are going to behave while the hospitals overcrowd, the police force is all out sick and they can't get an energy drink from the corner shop. But, yet you have one.

Flu Ward 1918
Most of us expect it to be grim, because of history tells us to expect the worst. More people died from the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic than in World War I. The word pandemic itself is derived from the greek words for "all" and "people," because whether or not a person survives, all people are affected.

But, if you can think about pandemics without making the leap from the scientific curiosities directly to World War III, in between you'll find the real politics. Vaccinations. Government. Medicine. Business. It's nothing like preparing for a hurricane or earthquake.

Communities will set up refuges to coordinate resources and care for the sick. People will volunteer to provide care and many will die doing so. Some businesses will close for good while workers who can telecommute will benefit. Miracle cures will be sold everywhere despite the fact that none of them actually work.

I suspect I'd be one of the people who joins the Red Cross and gets sick the first week. Unlike the zombie apocalypse, there would be no easy way to conduct a life surrounded by so much death. Seriously. It would be easier to run away from zombies. Every one for themselves. But, during a pandemic, most of us couldn't and wouldn't grab a gun and go full barbaric.

But, then again, maybe people have changed.

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