What Zombie Expert Max Brooks Can Teach Us About Coronavirus
Max Brooks is best known as the author of the novel World War Z. But he also uses apocalyptic stories to teach us how to respond to large-scale crises. Now, as coronavirus infections continue to rise, Moment editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein speaks with Brooks (whose new book, Devolution, comes out in May) at his home about what governments—and individuals—can do to help stop the virus’s spread.
Plus, if you want to hear Brooks speak, he will be appearing with Moment and the winners of the 2019 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest on April 1, at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Learn more and purchase tickets here.
I’m with Max Brooks talking about the coronavirus. What’s happening, Max?
It’s hard to know because this is all coming out of China. And China is one big lie factory. When you have a totalitarian regime, they must by their very nature appear omnipotent. They cannot seem flawed because if they are flawed, then they have no right to exist. In a democracy, leaders can be flawed because you can replace the leaders, but the system goes on. But in a totalitarian regime, the system is the leaders. So the leaders, by their very existence, must be perfect. And that is why China is much more concerned with looking good than doing the right thing.
The truth is I have spoken to personal friends and people that I’ve worked with in the medical infectious disease profession, and they have said we simply do not have all the answers. We just don’t have the data yet. We don’t have a handle on how this virus operates, how infectious it really is. We don’t know yet. So we’re sort of groping around in the dark right now.
Does China have an equivalent of something like the CDC?
They do, but it’s like everything else. It’s at the mercy of the Chinese communist party. We know now that the initial whistleblowers were talking on WeChat and we know that the local police called them in and said, “You’re spreading rumors, you better cut that out or you’re going to disappear.” This is the problem with how we’ve been responding to China. We’re all praising them for their collective ability to solve the problem. But it’s that same concentration of power that’s allowed them to cause the problem in the first place.
This is why, in my novel World War Z, I put the zombie virus in China. Because if I had put it anywhere else, one scrappy little reporter could have blown the lid off and then there would be no virus. China is, unfortunately, the perfect storm for pandemics. It has a massive population. It also has an incredibly new and efficient infrastructure. That’s another thing. So first you get the virus, then you spread it among the people, and then you have this amazing rail system, roads, ships, airplanes. So then you can outsource that plague at light speed. And then the third factor is you have an oppressive government that is terrified of being embarrassed.
What steps are being taken to control the virus in China, in the U.S. and worldwide?
I’m not a professional, but in my own layman’s knowledge, the Chinese are trying to do their quarantines. But they’re limited quarantines. They’re quarantining zones, but they’re not quarantining the whole country. And what’s killing that quarantine is the 14-day incubation period. That’s the problem.
The best thing about viruses that work quickly is we know they’re working quickly. If you did a quarantine for Ebola, it’s 24 hours. You’re going to know really, really quickly if you have Ebola or not, but for this virus, you won’t know as quickly. So even though China has shut things down in certain cities and certain provinces, how many people got out before that? Screenings don’t always work because if you’re asymptomatic, it doesn’t help to take your temperature at the airport.
So are we—and the CDC—prepared for an outbreak like this?
I think we might be as much as democracy allows. There are certain things we can do, and there are certain things that the Chinese can do that we can’t do. We’re not going to build a hospital in ten days. We don’t have that ability to marshal resources. At the same time, we also have a free press, but whether we listen to that free press, that’s on us. The point is, let’s say there is a cluster of this virus that comes to the United States and starts to make the rounds and doctors start to talk to each other about it, they’re not going to be brought in by the government and told to shut up.
So personally, as a private citizen, I would rather be in a messy, free, open democracy than in an efficient dictatorship. Because you can be very efficient at getting something done, but what if it’s the wrong thing? China is efficient, like I said, at solving the problem now, but it was also very efficient at letting it get out of control because they sat on it.
Has China learned anything from previous outbreaks?
From what I have heard, China is doing a better job than they did with SARS, but this is not SARS; this is spreading much quicker. And I think the death toll has already surpassed SARS. So let’s see what they learn from this. And it’s already too late for the people who are dead.
So what can individuals in the U.S. do today to protect themselves? We see all those people walking around with masks; is wearing a mask a practical solution?
The nicest thing about this disease, from what we understand, is if it spreads like the flu, you would protect yourself the same way. Like I was saying, we don’t know yet. But I do think what we should all do right now is prep ourselves for quarantine. And when I say quarantine, I don’t mean tanks surrounding the Washington Beltway. It could be as simple as someone who comes in contact with someone who came in contact with someone who has it, and that person may be ordered to stay in their house for 14 days.
So you better go buy some food.
The moment I heard that it’s a 14-day incubation period, I went out and I bought enough food for my whole family, including the dog, for 14 days. I’ve been prepping for earthquakes since I was a little kid. And the one potential silver lining in this case, compared with something like an earthquake, is that the physical infrastructure would still be running. In an earthquake, there’s no more lights, there’s no more water, there’s no more gas. You might have to move out of your house so it doesn’t collapse on top of you during an aftershock.
In a quarantine, assuming that the professionals who work at the sewage treatment plant and the power company aren’t sick and haven’t panicked and walked off the job, if you have to quarantine in your house, you can still cook the food that you stored. You can still take a shower, watch TV, can keep yourself occupied and also safe and warm. If we have an earthquake right now in LA, it’s cold outside. We’d be camping out and a lot more people would get sick just because they would have to be camping out in this cold temperature. Whereas if LA is put under quarantine for this virus, we would just stay home and play a lot of Monopoly.
And watch TV.
We’d watch a lot of TV. So maybe that’s a silver lining. But the truth is we’re in a giant gray area right now.
Do you think there’s a chance that we would all be put under quarantine to stay home? Has that ever been done before?
The professionals I talked to just say that we simply do not know yet. I do think it is reasonable to expect it to get worse before it gets better. But I think we also have to be on the watch for blind panic. Right now the Chinese government is screaming about how these travel bans are hurting their feelings. Well, I think China can take it. But what is inexcusable is something I just heard about, which is a petition going around for a local Southern California school district, Alhambra, which has a large proportion of Asian Americans, to close the schools. And that is just—and you can quote me on this—that is just some blind knee-jerk racist bullshit and that needs to stop.
These are Americans. These are Americans who happen to be of Asian descent, and they are a hell of a lot less likely to infect their fellow Americans than white people getting off a plane from somewhere else. It’s much more likely that somebody went to Cabo and partied and happened to be at a hotel with somebody from Wuhan and brought the virus back. So their Asianness has absolutely nothing to do with the virus. We’ve got to be super careful against that kind of racist panic.
This outbreak coincided with Chinese New Year this year, and so many Chinese people were traveling at that time. So they were all over the world already.
And they didn’t know. You’re sort of seeing the reactions. There was a recent spat where, I think it was the acting Chinese ambassador to Israel. He apparently was furious at Israel’s—it’s not even a travel ban, it’s just a travel delay. They were saying you can come in, you’ve just got to be somewhere neutral for 14 days before you come in. But he compared it to the Holocaust.
He compared it to China taking in Jews during the Holocaust, which ranges from the wildly inaccurate because technically it wasn’t the Chinese communist party that took in Jews. It was Chiang Kai-shek. Really what we should be saying is thank you Taiwan.
So is there some model of preparedness that we should be looking at right now?
The truth is we don’t know. I think right now you’ve got to do standard flu hygiene. You’ve got to wash your hands. You’ve got to rub down surfaces. I’m preparing for my book tour. Hopefully, it will have burned out by then. But I’ve got my sanitization kit ready to spray down surfaces. I’ve got my mask. I’ve got everything I need because it’s the same thing with the flu. You should just be aware that you can get it from a surface. You can get it from touching your face. You can get it from shaking hands. You can get it if the guy on the plane next to you sneezes.
So you think the masks are actually helpful?
There are different types of masks, and a lot of them either don’t work or are simply not practical for flying. The masks, like the standard medical masks as I understand it, that you see people wearing, only protect you against micro-droplets in the air with the virus in it. They don’t protect you against the airborne virus. And a lot of times people are wearing them so they don’t spread it, just in case. So if they sneeze, they sneeze into the mask.
The ones that work better are the ones called N95s or N99s. The problem is, you can’t wear them on a transcontinental flight because they’re too uncomfortable and hot. A friend of mine who travels, this is what he told me. So it’s tough. I think the most important thing is right now we’re in a holding pattern and we all have to be super careful when we talk about what to do because we don’t know. We need to have detailed studies done on the nature of this virus before we know anything. I grew up during the AIDS epidemic, and we had AIDS week at my school. I grew up watching the great denial (oh, I can’t get it, I’m not gay, I’m not Haitian, I’m not an IV drug user, I’m fine) switch to the great panic (oh my God, it’s on a toilet seat). And there were rumors floating about that they were going to put AIDS patients in concentration camps and quarantine them. And so I had AIDS week at my school, where they sat us down, they’re like, okay, here’s how you get the virus and here’s how you protect yourself.
And what worries me now is we don’t have C. Everett Koop. He was on TV all the time and calming us down and saying, hey, we can wipe this thing out. We don’t need a laboratory. We just need a pamphlet. We just need some good knowledge and wisdom.
And public health?
Yes, public health. I don’t know if we have that. I think the problem is in the age of the internet, everybody thinks they’re an expert. So even if we do have the head of the CDC come out and say, listen, here’s what to do, unlike in the 80s, you’re going to have a group of people that are going to say oh no, no.
Like people who don’t believe in vaccines.
The anti-vaxxers are the worst. And they’re a product of our own success because we’ve managed to wipe these diseases so far away from us. There is no living memory. I can’t say his name, but my mentor, he is a very famous actor, writer, director. We all vacationed in the same resort, and in the 80s they brought him a masseuse. My mother said, oh, you must get a massage, it’s just wonderful. And he said, I don’t do massages. And my mom said, well, why not, it’s the most wonderful feeling. And he said, because it’s too much of a reminder of the physical therapy I had when I had polio.
Those people aren’t around anymore like they used to be. If my mother had decided not to vaccinate me, my grandmother would have beaten her to death. Are you crazy? But nowadays the average grandparent is a baby boomer who grew up with vaccines and doesn’t know what it’s like to have that kind of terror. That if your child says, “Mommy, I have a headache,” you don’t have to go to bed and clutch the Bible and say, “Oh, please don’t let it be polio.” I know that if my son says he doesn’t feel good, he’s got a cold, maybe he has the flu, he’s fine.
So we don’t have diseases like tuberculosis that would just rip through the population. We don’t even have the fear of AIDS now, and that’s why AIDS is making a comeback. Because young people think, well, I’ll go on some pills, I’m fine. And besides, it won’t happen to me. When I was 12 years old and I started at my new school, there was an administrator there who was very kind to me. He was sort of a lighthouse in the fog of terror that was middle school. And then a couple of years in, he left and we didn’t know what happened. He had AIDS. And then a few years later he came back to visit and I saw a zombie, like from one of my books. Tall, strong, good-looking guy. But he had gotten wizened, his skin was blotchy, red and white. His hair had gone gray, the hair that was left. His eyes were glassy. And I’ll never forget, I looked up to him and I said hi. And he looked at me and had no idea who I was.
Well, those days are so far in the rearview mirror. I worry that even if we get the information and the head of the CDC or the head of the World Health Organization makes an announcement and says, “here’s what we actually know and here’s what you need to do,” that enough of the population will dismiss it and continue to spread it.
So why shouldn’t we panic?
You should never panic. Panic solves nothing. Panic does nothing. Like I said, with Alhambra, the fact is that we’re panicking and trying to punish Asian-Americans. That stinks of something else that happened in Southern California history. And if you want to know what that is, a block away from where we’re speaking right now is a black obelisk. It is a memorial to the spot where Japanese-Americans were told to assemble, to get on the buses, to go to the internment camps. Right here. Right where I live. And so that’s what panic does. We do not need that.
So what do we do?
We must be calmly concerned. We cannot blow this off. We cannot say, oh, you’re over-blowing it. We must act on the facts. And if those facts tell us to do things that are outside our normal behavior, we must do them. We must listen to qualified professionals. Not your yoga teacher, not some website that you’ve never heard of. We must listen to medical associations, staffed by qualified, experienced professionals and we must act on their findings.
So hopefully this outbreak will be controlled, but there are going to be more in the future.
How do we stop that?
I can tell you what we can do in the West. I think we need to treat the public health sector of our economy, of our government, the same way we treat national security. Because in my lifetime, we have shoveled trillions of dollars toward weapon systems that have not saved one American life. Whereas with this, we are actively in the fight. I think the great thing about public health is that it is also national security because the next plague that comes may not come from a bat in a restaurant. It may come from a laboratory.
We’re getting to a point with germ warfare where any nut job with a few grand and access to the internet will be able to download the genetic codes of superbugs and cook them up in his basement and then spread them around. And we won’t be able to stop that, but we can prepare for it by giving public health the same kind of priority that we give national security because they’re one and the same. That’s what we can do. When people in our government try to cut funds for the CDC, we need to have the same kind of uproar that we would have had in the 1950s, say, if they had cut the strategic air command.
One last question: You talked about how children in a predominantly Asian-American school are being singled out. What about recent news reports about the outbreak of measles in the New York ultra-Orthodox community?
I thought, oh God, here we go. Here it goes, it’s going to be on Stormfront the next day. I mean, wasn’t that one of those Nazi propaganda films?
The belief that Jews carry diseases predates Nazis.
Yeah. That Jews carry the plague—that’s the Middle Ages right there. So I’m like, oh my God, are you kidding me?
So this reverts right back to Jews and measles in England.
Yes, so when I heard about this thing in Alhambra, I thought it was just sick and disgusting. Because it’s about geography. It’s not about ethnicity.