Commentary

Why Zombies Aren’t a Good Pandemic Parallel 

Zombies climbing a wall in WWZ

This actually suggests that zombies are eusocial, which I genuinely haven't seen before.

For reasons that can’t possibly have anything to do with current events, a lot of people are concerned about pandemics these days. And, like any time pandemics are in the headlines, zombie discussions are close behind. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more social media posts about The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and World War Z than I know what to do with. Many people seem ready to declare Max Brooks their lord and savior for his divine prophecy about what happens when the dead rise.

This is hardly a surprise. Much of modern zombie fiction deliberately uses the shambling dead as a parallel for the spread of disease. Each zombie creates other zombies, leading to a chain reaction that overwhelms population centers. Many zombie stories also include disaster movie tropes, such as the scientist who tries to warn us and the politician who downplays the problem to avoid hurting their reelection chances.

Unfortunately, zombies aren’t actually a very good storytelling parallel for pandemics, and it’s time to talk about why.

Classic Zombies Aren’t Threatening

The first thing you notice about classic, Living Dead–style zombies is that they’re slow. After that, their second most prominent trait is lacking intelligence. They can shamble, grab, bite, and that’s about it. In exchange, the only way they can be killed is by destroying their brains, they don’t get tired, and they usually don’t need to eat.

This combo means that a classic zombie isn’t at all dangerous. Even if it takes a headshot to kill the undead, disabling them via leg shots is child’s play. I have a whole article about how modern weapons would completely shred zombies, but you don’t even need to go that far. A handful of disciplined humans with dog-bite suits and spears could hold off the horde indefinitely, since anyone with even the most basic armor is effectively invulnerable against a zombie.

The humans could also just run away. Zombie stories often claim that slow shamblers are threatening because they act as persistence hunters, tiring out their prey after hours and hours of running. This is a tactic humans are really good at, but the same cannot be said of zombies, because it’s super easy to lose them. They don’t have the intelligence to follow prey across even the most basic of obstacles, and they are incredibly easy to outrun. I won’t say there aren’t any stories out there that portray zombies as effective persistence hunters, but I haven’t been able to find one yet.

Zombies are so unthreatening that most stories about them can only generate conflict by putting the heroes up against undead hordes on all sides. The storytellers then politely ask that you not consider how there got to be so many zombies in the first place, since there’s no way to answer that. Even then, shows like The Walking Dead are notorious for having the characters make terrible decisions because that’s the only way they’ll be in danger.

Zombies Aren’t Very Infectious

So maybe zombies aren’t all that dangerous as monsters, but doesn’t their main threat come from how they spread as a disease? Unfortunately, our shambling friends aren’t up to the task there either.

Consider the infection characteristics of the zombie virus. In most stories, individuals are only contagious well after symptoms appear, usually once they’ve become a zombie. After that, the infection can only spread via a direct exchange of bodily fluids, usually through a bite.

This is a pandemic on ultimate baby mode. In real life, the diseases that we need to worry about are the ones that spread without showing obvious symptoms. The modern COVID-19 is one such illness. It’s difficult to contain because by the time you know one person is infected, they’ve likely spread it to several other people. Before it was eradicated, smallpox worked in a similar way.* And while bubonic plague can only move from human to human in its final stages, rodents and fleas spread it around way before that.

In contrast, the zombie virus is only dangerous to someone standing right over the victim at the moment of undead transformation, at which point a surprise bite has a chance of landing. So long as you can avoid direct contact with the undead, you’re safe. To be fair, zombies are slightly more mobile than the average plague victim, but as we covered earlier, not nearly mobile enough.

In real life, the zombie virus is much closer to something like Ebola. To be clear, Ebola is a horrific disease, but it isn’t any kind of existential threat to humanity because it’s so easy to spot. That’s why the worst Ebola outbreak on record has only killed about 11,000 people, compared to the millions who die in even a mild pandemic.

The only advantage the zombie virus has over its real-world counterparts is that in most stories, it’s 100% lethal. Not only is this not nearly enough to make it a serious threat, but it actually makes treatment easier in a particularly brutal way. Once someone is infected, no one will seriously argue in favor of risking healthy people to help the afflicted, since there’s zero chance of recovery.

Zombies Are an Immediate Problem

The main fallback of zombie defenders is the idea that no matter how easy the undead are to stop, governments will find a way to muck it up. They won’t take the threat seriously, or they’ll try to hide it so it doesn’t impact stock prices and election results. Standard villain stuff.

As an American, I understand why this idea resonates with people. Even in countries that aren’t run by incompetent wannabe fascists, responses to the COVID-19 outbreak have often been slow and inadequate, leading to a tragically high number of avoidable deaths. However, this isn’t what would happen in a zombie outbreak, because zombies are a fundamentally different kind of problem.

As a species, humans are really good at solving immediate problems with obvious consequences because we’re so damned smart. We’re really good at fighting fires, inventing new technologies, and rescuing people from collapsed buildings. What we’re less good at is solving long-term problems with indirect consequences.*

Global warming, infrastructure repair, and pandemics all fall into this second category. They usually require an upfront cost for something that won’t pay off until much later. Worse, it’s often hard to notice the benefits, since we measure them in how many bridges didn’t collapse and how much global temperatures didn’t rise. Pandemics are the same. They’re easy to ignore at first and costly to stop. On top of this, a lot of the measures needed to stop them are incredibly unpopular.

Zombies are the opposite. A zombie outbreak is more like an invasion of angry bears than a traditional pandemic. What’s more, zombies can be stopped through violence, something humans are incredibly good at. No politician, no matter how incompetent, would miss this chance. They’d flood the internet and airwaves with images of brave soldiers mowing down zombies. It’s an opportunity for good PR and a boost to the arms industry. If anything, the danger would lie in politicians overstating the threat to squeeze out some extra popularity.

Can Zombies Be More Threatening?

Plenty of storytellers have already realized everything I’ve just told you, and they’ve responded by trying to make zombies a more dangerous threat. This is doable, but it does have pitfalls of its own. There are two main ways storytellers try to upgrade their zombies: physical power and infection rates.

Physical Power

While this seems like an obvious option, it has serious problems. First, no matter how strong you make zombies, it’s unlikely they’ll be strong enough to defeat humans in open warfare. The increasingly popular “fast zombies” are not nearly enough, since all the added speed does is make zombies about as fast as a running human. This still leaves zombies in a position to do nothing but charge human firing lines like it’s World War I on the Western Front.

Even the more powerful zombies of games like Left 4 Dead aren’t enough to seriously threaten the world’s militaries. You can make a zombie resistant to small arms fire, but how well can they resist Hellfire missiles fired from a Predator drone at 10,000 feet? In fact, by beefing up your zombies, you may simply draw attention to how impossible it is for them to win a war against humans. It’s like how certain Star Wars tie-in stories have characters who make their lightsabers longer so they can have better reach. The moment you encourage the audience to think about how lightsabers actually work, the whole house of suspended disbelief comes crashing down.

But let’s say you do somehow manage to make zombies that can credibly defeat Abrams tanks. Now you have a new problem: how is your ragtag band of survivors going to last two seconds against that kind of enemy? They’ll be overwhelmed in the first chapter. I won’t say it’s impossible to square this circle, but it’ll take a lot of work on your part.

Infection Rates

Your other option for making zombies more dangerous is to up their infection rate. Most stories that do this employ some combination of making the virus more contagious and increasing the time between the initial infection and the manifestation of symptoms. That way, the plague can spread far and wide, no matter how vulnerable the undead are to machine guns.

With this option, you take a pandemic parallel and turn it into a literal pandemic. With a contagious enough illness and a long enough incubation period, your pandemic can easily sweep over the entire world. Such diseases are incredibly unlikely in real life, but they’re perfectly plausible in fiction.

The downside is that in this scenario, the actual zombies are something of an afterthought. A serious enough pandemic, something way worse than COVID-19, is more than capable of wiping out most humans all on its own. At most, zombies would be the final straw on an already overstressed healthcare system.

Still, this does provide a good setup for why your protagonists need to navigate a wasteland full of zombies. Whether they’re immune to the infection or just have very good protective gear, this creates a plausible explanation for how most of humanity was wiped out while still leaving the zombies weak enough for a scrappy band of survivors to deal with.

Zombies and the Real-World Fallacy

Anytime you hear someone defend a bad story by saying that’s what happens in real life, you’ve encountered the real-world fallacy in action. This fallacy is especially likely to pop up for parallel stories when the thing they’re paralleling is actually happening in real life.

We’ve been seeing this with the Star Wars prequels for the last several years. Those movies are an incredibly bad attempt to show how democracy can be undermined and destroyed by opportunistic demagogues exploiting a crisis. Now that Americans are witnessing that exact scenario firsthand, some of us are looking back at the prequels and wondering if we judged them too harshly.

A quick rewatch will confirm that no, we did not judge the prequels too harshly. They’re still terrible films, even if the thing they tried to describe is actually happening. Now, with a global pandemic on everyone’s minds, there’s a risk that zombie stories will get the same rose-colored treatment.

Of course, zombies represent an entire subgenre, not just one set of bad films. There are good zombie stories and bad zombie stories, but the entire undead conceit has certain weaknesses that storytellers need to account for. If we get caught up in the idea that classic zombies are automatically plausible because our governments are doing a bad job combating COVID-19, we risk producing bad work.

I like to think that bad stories are worth avoiding for their own sake, but there’s also a self-interest angle to consider here. People may be extremely forgiving of zombie stories now, but that mood will disappear once the current crisis ends. The same is true of any real-world event that temporarily changes people’s tastes in fiction. Unless you’re a true speed demon, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a novel or other long story ready before the market moves on. And even if you somehow do, any sales benefits you see will only be temporary. So if you’re inspired to write about the pandemic, make sure your parallel will hold up even when people aren’t excited about zombies.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Great article again, Oren!

    I’ve come across one story, though, where there would be a zombie apocalypse (but not in a pandemic way), if the hero (eh, sort of, at least) didn’t act early enough. The story was written by Jonathan L. Howard and is called “The Erishkegal Working”. Unfortunately, the only way it’s currently available, it seems, is as part of the “Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day” audiobook which collects all Johannes Cabal short stories.

    In “The Ereshkegal Working”, a man after Cabal uses the ritual in question to raise the dead in a town. Unfortunately, the guy doesn’t know that the working is supposed to unleash the apocalypse and give the entity called into our world all the power it needs. The Working raises all the dead in a three-mile (little under) radius around the caster. Every body still mostly intact and no older than a month is valid. As you can imagine, that gives any necromancer using the ritual a good amount of the undead to start off with. Anyone killed, no matter how, within the area of influence, will also be raised as a zombie.

    Now you’re going to say that ‘it’s just three miles around the caster’ and that’s not an apocalypse. Yes, as long as the caster is still in control of the ritual, it’s not an apocalypse. But the caster’s control slips as soon as they fail to use it by, say, falling asleep. Then the three-mile radius becomes nil and void and the entity will encompass the whole planet, raising all valid corpses there. That is when the apocalypse begins.

    The only way to send the entity back to its home dimension is to make sure the caster is three miles from any valid dead body, so the entity has nothing left to inhabit (as it doesn’t inhabit the caster, as long as they’re still alive). In the story, that’s done by tying the caster to a helium-filled balloon in the shape of a cartoon animal and letting them hover out to sea. As Johannes puts it: a rope with a cartoon character on both ends, but that’s his pre-‘I got my soul back’ pesonality.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That does sound like a fun story, and it’s unusual as it’s going for raising bodies that are already dead. I’m not convinced that would be enough when dealing with modern weapons, but it’s certainly more plausible once you get magic involved.

      • Cay Reet

        It’s a very fun story.

        In the stories about Johannes Cabal (a necromancer of some little infamy), zombies are generally made from dead people and not from the living – although living killed by the zombies made with that ritual will, naturally rise as zombies, too. There are several ways, mostly the worship of certain gods (that’s the direction of voodoo, making only few zombies for a specific use), a ritual like the one mentioned above, mechanical zombies (that’s what “The House of Gears” is all about), or diablerie (gaining the power to raise the dead from the devil – what Johannes did).

        I agree that they probably wouldn’t hold up to modern weapons, since the second time dead means dead. However, the world the story is set in is some kind of conglomerate of early 20th century (pre-world wars) and some 1950s aspects. There might not be enough weaponry of the right kind around. Also, if only one zombie remains somewhere, the entity remains and can take over whomever dies afterwards, bringing up the numbers again. There doesn’t have to be physical contact or suchlike.

  2. LazerRobot

    “A zombie outbreak is more like an invasion of angry bears than a traditional pandemic.”

    I would love to see a story about an invasion of angry bears.
    World War B: A Grizzly Situation

    But the incompetent wannabe fascist leader in that story would probably tell everyone no one could have seen it coming, even though park rangers had been warning about it for years!

    • Cay Reet

      Well, the Australians lost a war against emus once, just saying…

    • Ikke Spør

      I have to say, as a person who grew up in Alaska, angry bears are pretty terrifying, and very deadly…. We lose people every year, not just out in the woods…. I mean, even in parts of the city (anything close to a river with fish in it) bears are a reasonable threat. Usually, if you just make enough noise and bring bear spray (and maybe a shotgun), you’re fine, but every summer, somebody gets mauled. I’ve been in some pretty sticky situations myself….
      Could be a great story though!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Today in a press release, the President said that he had very good relations with the bears and they were good friends of his, shortly before he was eaten by a bear.

  3. RedRook

    Interesting article! This actually reminded me of the old Left for Dead series, which, in my view, was one ofthe few zombie games to show how a virus that could pose a real threat. The virus was both airborne (no bites needed, just being near a zombie was enough to infect you) and had asymptomatic carriers.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah the L4D series employs a combination of higher infection rates and really powerful zombies. It works pretty well, especially for its video game premise.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    With respect to the point about the Star Wars prequels, a major problem they have is that they portray the fascist leader as a brilliant chessmaster who tricks everyone and wipes out an extremely powerful paramilitary religious organization, before creating an extremely powerful military who build the largest weapon in galactic history. In reality, this is a convenient myth for those duped by such leaders, as real authoritarian leaders use conveniently powerless scapegoats and generally tell their people exactly who they are as they offer no real solutions for the deeper societal problems they exploit as a means to gain power. People simply delude themselves into thinking they will be better than they say, and when they are inevitably proven wrong claim that they had no way of knowing what would happen.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Plus our current wannabe fascist dictator didn’t even trick most people, just the right people in the correct geographic areas. Thanks, electoral college!

  5. Crovet

    This article is great, and a good corollary for the one about zombies vs military.

    I’m trying to write a story with a threat of a zombie apocalypse in it, and the only thing I could came up with to make them work as a world ending threat was basically magic.

    I mean literally, the zombies are magical in nature, and they can spread with so little as VISUAL contact (Which includes videos and pictures) Add the fact that they can get through metal doors and the like, and the threat level is massively increased. Although in this case the objective is to keep the zombies from going out and creating the apocalypse, rather than surviving it.

    But yeah, there is almost no way that a zombie apocalypse can work for a pandemic parallel without an ACTUAL pandemic from which zombies are a side effect

    • Cay Reet

      There are stories with magically created zombies (like the one I mentioned above), but also stories where viruses (natural, created, extraterrestrial) create zombies. The most well-known of the latter might be Resident Evil.

      Zombification could be a side effect of a pandemic, in which case a long time with asymptomatic carriers would help the pandemic to spread.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I don’t see any issue with getting overt magic involved in your zombie story. Much more plausible than pretending they spread via virus.

  6. Brigitta M.

    So spot on. George Romero understood this with “Night of the Living Dead,” he seemed to have forgotten about the (spoiler for a what? 50 year old movie) nuclear bomb in less loved sequels.

    Zombies work best when they’re isolated stories about one family in the middle of nowhere or on an island (see also: The only thing that worked for “Island of the Dead”). Yeah, zombie hordes are fun action sequences…but they break believability pretty quickly in worlds where a modern military is still a thing.

    The only time they even remotely work is when the zombies are literally symptomatic (as in “the story says so, not just the ad”) of things like hell breaking open which bring in demons (lots of ’em…who can use guns and magic) or the end result of a devastating pandemic where the hordes are just destroying what’s left instead of being the cause of the whole thing.

    –Bri

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep, people also forget that Night of the Living Dead ends with the Black hero being shot by the (white) humans who were supposedly there to rescue him.

  7. Jeppsson

    The simpler demons in my stories are basically mindless and pretty slow, but they have to major advantages over your standard zombie: Complete physical invulnerability, and the ability to “phase” through every physical obsatcle, like Shadowcat of the X-men or a traditional ghost. These two powers are real game-changers!

  8. Mike

    While it’s technically not a zombie story, something like The Last of Us may also work. In that game, the plague is transmitted through fungal spores, which A. may easily turn entire areas into infection hotspots, and B. lets the worst of the infected spread the plague over an area, instead of only through direct contact.

    It also helps that those who are infected become aggressive before they’re completely turned. And then they introduce a single person who’s immune to the plague, making for an amazing story.

  9. Shamanka

    Reading this made me think that a story where the zombies are metafictional entities that can both beat the military and lose to a ragtag group of civilians because That’s What Zombies Do would be an interesting twist on the genre. Wouldn’t make them better pandemic metaphors, but would be fun to read.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh wow that sounds great, I’d read that! “And it turns out the real zombie virus was the meta commentary we made along the way.”

    • Cay Reet

      Zombie 1: “Hah! That was another wave of military soldiers, nothing to worry about.”
      Zombie 2: “Shit! Look over there! A ragtag group of civilians.”
      Zombie 1: “Oh no! Prepare to die, guys! It’s over for us! We can’t win against a ragtag group of civilians!”

  10. Jenn H

    It always bugs me just how quickly the world’s militaries folds in these stories. You would think those organisations would be the ones best able to handle such a scenario. Not only do soldiers have all the training, equipment and supplies they need, they have been specifically trained to do violence. Morale is less likely to be an issue, not only is killing a soldier’s job, but the Geneva convention doesn’t apply to this enemy.

    • LeeEsq

      There really isn’t any good fantasy threat against modern industrial or post-industrial society without a lot of cheating on the author’s part. JK Rowling said that the most powerful wizard or witch is powerless against an ordinary human with a gun and a decent aim. Zombies, skeletons, orcs, dragons, and more can’t stand up to guns, modern artillery, or fighter planes. It just won’t happen. If a threat is really deadly, we can just nuke them.

      • Jeppsson

        It’s not true that fantasy creatures can’t pose real threats to modern society. This is because authors are free to make them as powerful as they like. If Rowling’s wizards can’t stand up to a human with a gun, that’s because she made them that way. Another author might make a wizard who can easily magic any gun away, in which case they’d be more powerful than humans with guns. Give a wizard sufficiently powerful magic, and they could magic nukes away too.

        Oren has pointed out over and over that the X-men should be able to just steamroll any army and any weapon regular humans can produce, and the only reason they have trouble with regular humans is because the writers “cheat” in the opposite direction to what we see in most zombie stories.

        • Cay Reet

          I agree. You can create wizards and witches who can cloak themselves in a shield spell no bullet can penetrate. Dragons could even enjoy being nuked – they’re creatures of fire, after all, they might do well with radiation.

        • LeeEsq

          That’s what I meant by a lot of cheating on the authors part. The author needs to make the creature immune to anything mundane in order for modern industrial societies to be a threat and have the heroes have something to do.

          The monsters or evil mages are going to do a lot of damage before being brought down but without author cheating, you are going to get government authorities dealing with a zombie invasion like they would an invading army or a cabal of evil wizards and witches dealt with like an organized crime family/terrorist cell/wacko religious cult. That generally isn’t the type of reading experience many readers are looking for.

          • Jeppsson

            Oh, I thought by “cheating” you meant internal inconsistencies and plot holes, because that really is a problem with a lot of zombie stories.

            I don’t see it as automatic cheating if a creature is invulnerable to bullets, for instance. If it makes sense in-universe, what’s the problem?

        • LeeEsq

          Although I think a vampire novel that reads as a police procedural and a vampire is treated as a sort of Jack the Ripper style serial killer would be fascinating. That’s just me though.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s not even that for me. Humans are hard-wired to fight for their life, so regular civilians might also catch up with the ‘they’re dead anyway, no problem killing them again’ part of the zombie apocalypse.

      What the military is extremely well-suited for is the whole organisational part – distributing resources, moving people to safe locations, building bases. That would also be extremely important and the military can do that.

  11. Jeppsson

    Mike Carey has two kinds of zombies in his books.

    1. In the Felix Castor series, ghosts appeared on Earth in fairly large numbers a couple of decades before the first book starts, and now they’re a fact of life. Some ghosts sort of get trapped in their own corpses, and the result is a zombie (actually labelled such!).
    Those are pretty different from your standard zombie. They have normal intelligence and personalities, and they’re not agressive. They’re just really sad, since they keep decomposing, and when it gets too bad, they’re gonna “die” again. One of Fix’s friends, Nick, is a zombie, and he’s very organized and determined to make his body last for as long as possible.

    2. The girl with all the gifts, and sequel the boy on the bridge. These are more typical zombies (called “hungries”), since they’re a threat and there’s a zombie apocalypse (although the MC in the first book is a zombie herself). You become a zombie when a kind of brain-altering fungus infects you (inspired by these fungi that can live in ants’ brains and alter their behaviour). The fun tweak, though, is that even though zombies usually spread the infection through biting, their heads occasionally explode, spreading zombie fungi spores far and wide. So from time to time there’s a burst of airborn contagion, and whenever that happens, you could turn zombie even if you were miles away from the exploding head. It also takes a long time for scientists to learn that this sometimes happen.

  12. Dave L

    >Physical Power

    I know of several series where superheroes become zombies, while retaining their superpowers: Marvel Zombies, Ex-Heroes, and more

  13. AuntyKitty

    One thing that’s always bothered me about the standard zombie narrative is that it ends up villifying the sufferers as well as the disease. Regardless of whether the writer means it this way, a rampaging zombie hoard ends up being a representation of the hysteria surrounding the living and dead bodies of disease sufferers.

    I would love to read a story from the point of view of a zombie during a zombie apocalypse. I’m sure sympathetic zombies already exist aplenty, but I don’t think I know of any that are POV characters based in a current pandemic situation. It could be an interesting take to show somebody who is infected and dying, but also trying to survive for as long as possible while avoiding contact with people and facing the stigma associated with being an obvious zombie during a zombiism crisis.

    • Dave L

      The movie Warm Bodies (2013)

    • Jeppsson

      The movie Maggie. It got pretty so-so reviews, but me and Husband thought it was great. I think a lot of people were disappointed because they didn’t expect “zombie movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger” to be a slow-paced drama.
      It’s not a “zombie apocalypse” per se, since the governments have things under control, but there’s been a zombie outbreak. Arnold plays the father of titular Maggie who’s turning into a zombie. Because of a long incubation time, you’re allowed to keep a family member in that state for home, with regular doctor’s appointments… until they go too far, and have to be sent into “quarantine”. Which is actually a kind of death camp. It’s just a really, really SAD movie. It’s all so hopeless.

      It’s not this kind of one-to-one allegory where you can say that being a zombie represents THAT infectious disease; they don’t try to do that, for which I’m grateful, since that would probably have ended up stupid. But there are obviously various parallells you can still draw. The official line is also that once someone turns, so to speak, full zombie, they don’t have a consciousness anymore and can’t suffer, but it seems like this is false propaganda in-universe, which makes things even more horrible.

  14. Lexy

    “This is a pandemic on ultimate baby mode” This cracked me up a lot harder than it should have X’D Thank you as always for a well written, informative, and entertaining article! Stay safe! :D/

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hehe, thanks, I’m glad you liked it! I wish I could remember where I got the line “ultimate baby mode.” I think it was from a Penny Arcade comic originally, but I can’t find it through searching. I hope you keep enjoying the site, and please stay safe as well!

  15. Gork

    I think the analysis here relies on a few unspoken assumptions.

    The first is perfect knowledge of how zombies function: don’t get bit and destroy the brain. But a pretty baseline for most zombie fiction is that zombies as we conceive of them don’t exist. So they don’t have a framework to work from, and response would basically be working from zero. That would slow any response, and any containment, as well as public understanding. We know quite a bit more about Covid-19, and we still can’t get people to stop meeting up in large numbers and figuratively spitting in each other’s mouths. A lot of people don’t even believe it’s real.

    You also kind of ignore the emotional and mental self control required en masse here. To successfully contain and destroy a zombie outbreak, you’d not only have to commit to culling the zombies, but also executing the infected. You’d have to convince people to turn friends, family, or even themselves, over to be killed. You’d have to order local police forces (likely with limited support) to engage in constant heavy combat for days, if not weeks, all the while having the threat of death hanging over their heads if they get bitten. Underestimating morale in the largely civilian populations at risk is a huge miss here.

    People would run, first responders and security forces included. We’re seeing Covid-19 pop in places where people infected with it have fled to escape hot zones. You can get pretty far in a couple days even just at interstate speeds, and farther in an airplane. Look at how garbage Covid screening at ports of entry have been, and infected slipping through unmolested isn’t fanciful.

    There’s also an over estimation of modern armor. Ideally we’d be looking at riot gear. The article mentions dog bite suits, but good luck getting the hundreds necessary to equip a containment force (many US states can’t even get disposable PPE in the numbers they need) Riot gear, more plentiful in urban centers, isn’t a full body suit of armor. It’s a strapped on overlay meant to protect from blows from thrown objects, as well as limited protection from firearms. It still has soft spots and straps the armor can’t protect. It’s meant for protection from an opponent that can be scared off and suppressed by heavier gear or bludgeoned into broken submission. It’s less good against an enemy you can’t scare off. That’s not to say useless, but far from invincible.

    Which leads into another thing: zombies break human warfare. They don’t feel pain or have a concept of mortality. They can’t be demoralized or forced to retreat. Whether slow or fast, they don’t get tired. Disabling injuries that would take a human out of a fight don’t work here unless the zombie is completely dismembered. Flanking attacks and encirclement don’t break them, like they did regular armies at Cannae, Teutoburg, or in the early days of the Eastren front. It just means more vectors to attack. Even if we assume that zombies can be lured into disadvantageous positions, that doesn’t mean you can assume every zombies walks straight into your meat grinder.

    But humans do get tired and scared, and most of your early zombie outbreak response is going to be taken on by local police or equivalents or whatever civilians decide to help. And they’re going to be hopelessly out of their depth. You’re not only asking for days or weeks of fighting, but also asking them to consistently land head shots at range, or in close quarters. That’s a near impossible task for the average cop, much less the average person. And they’re against an opponent who will either convert the wounded into combatants or lead to their execution.

    So the answer is , send in the military or at least initiate a federal response. Two snags. First look at the paucity of many federal/federal equivalent responses. For example, the Trump administration is purposefully supplying states they want to win in November with an abundance of supplies, while letting blue states, and reliable red flyovers sputter and die. Hell, the feds have even stolen supplies Massachusetts already paid for. Several governments ( China, Iran, Russia, Indonesia, Italy) are under reporting their deaths, or don’t have the testing capacity to accurately count their Covid-19 cases.

    That’s not counting the US Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Florida pretending the pandemic is not happening.

    The military would also be in for a shit show. The U.S. military is designed for two things: killing people and breaking things. That’s not an insult. It’s one of the most finely calibrated engines of destruction in human history. But, if you been paying attention to the U.S. forever wars of choice, it don’t do so good at managing civilians or suppressing long term insurrection. And that’s with a free hand to drop a bomb on anyone who looked funny in a western direction. Throwing them into U.S. urban centers where they couldn’t use their heavy weapons, trying to manage terrified civilians and containment while fighting a close quarters ground war is a disaster waiting to happen.

    Finally, Ebola. There’s a reason why that didn’t hit pandemic levels. It’s a deadly disease, and it moves fast, and it’s closer to your immediate response required. But it was also started ins less advantaged place. Look at Covid-19 :it’s been spread by tourists from first world countries. There weren’t a lot of Ebola victims jumping on planes, though some did and only hard fought containment efforts stopped a global spread. But it required people to care and it was closer run than people care to admit.

    And looking at Covid-19, that little of people in power caring in very thin.

    Anyway, sorry for the long response. Not all zombie fiction is good, don’t get me wrong, but I feel this article relies of flawed assumptions.

    • Cay Reet

      Not denying most of what you say, but one point: Protection.

      Unless zombies develop much sharper and longer teeth than they have as humans (and in most zombie stories they don’t), even denim will already work as protective clothing. Human teeth are not sharp enough to bite through it, so while a bite might bruise you, it will not draw blood and thus not bring your body in direct contact with that of the zombie (their saliva, which would be the infective part). Everyone able to lay their hands on the equivalent of a pair of jeans and a jean jacket and buy a pair of work gloves or leather gloves could make their own pretty efficient protective clothing. Same goes for many other thicker fabrics – zombies can’t bite through them, so wearing them will protect you from the bite.

    • Jeppsson

      Comparison with Covid 19 is weird. Zombie infections usually have a 100 % death rate as depicted in fiction, and a nasty death at that. Covid 19 death rates are hard to estimate exactly, and they vary with how good a health care system each country has and numerous other factors. The death rate is, for instance, lower in Germany than most other countries. But as a rule of thumb, it seems like a few percent of all infected people die; if you’re fairly young and healthy to start with, the probability you’ll die from Covid 19 is very low indeed. Many people don’t get any symptoms at all, or symptoms no worse than a regular cold.

      If EVERYONE infected DIED, I’m 100 % certain people would respond VERY differently to this pandemic.

      • Cay Reet

        As far as I know, one reason why our rates are low here in Germany is that most people infected are in the 35-59 range – in that range, most people don’t get the worst possible outcome, quite some might even be asymptomatic. In Italy, on the other hand, a lot of the infected were 60+, a range in which a bad outcome is far more likely.

        Zombie-infections are usually shown with a 100% death rate – either because the infection always ends in death or because the death comes first and then the zombies rise again. If a zombie apocalypse had the death rate of Covid-19, it wouldn’t be an apocalypse, because between 90 and 99 % (depending on the status of the health system) would recover and be immune to the disease afterwards.

        If everyone died of the virus (or whatever caused the zombies), you can bet that humans would very quickly take all measures available to protect themselves, including the culling of those infected and a strict ‘lockdown’ policy. As a matter of fact, a lot of people ignore the ‘stay inside’ orders BECAUSE the virus doesn’t have a harsh outcome for most people who catch it. If everyone who caught Covid-19 were to die (or the rate were at 30, 40, or 50 % at least), you can bet that people would take it much more seriously.

        • Jeppsson

          I’ve read the age-related explanation too, but also that your public health care system is in better shape than in many other European countries where it’s been more dismantled over the years. If those who do become critically ill are well cared for, they’ll survive more often.
          I guess it might be a mix of many factors.

          But yeah, in Sweden, people have been pretty terrible about observing social distancing. And when you hear comments from people who don’t give a shit, it’s always “I’m not scared of Corona, it’s no biggie, it’s not such a dangerous disease, it’s just a flu really, I’m gonna be fine”. You wouldn’t have an attitude that cavalier about zombies…

          • Cay Reet

            It’s been dismantled somewhat, but, yes, on the whole our health care system is still on a good level and we’ve been able to expand our ICUs to care for all the critical cases.

  16. Trinadar

    SIR model shows that a zombie apocalypse would wipe out a paradigm shifting chunk of the population regardless.

    This only gets worse when you apply the “everyone who dies regardless of lack of contact with zombies will come back as a zombie” mortality rate.

    • Cay Reet

      Welcome to the Eriskigal Working.

  17. Erynus

    Ah, the old military approach. What better way to deal with something whose fluids are infectious than to blow it up to a fine mist that wind can scatter or splatter his gray matter into the walls? i wonder how such perfect strategy always end up in apocalypse.

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