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What I Learned About the Coronavirus World From Watching Zombie Flicks
There are terrible parallels between the pandemic and the zombie apocalypse. But don’t despair—there is hope for humanity yet.
In these times of the coronavirus, the images on our television screens can be haunting. I am still struck by the sight of a major capital city, ordinarily one of the most bustling metropolises on the planet, completely deserted. The silence where there used to be crowds made it all the more eerie. The one person I could see on the streets looked completely mystified as to what was happening.
Then I paused the beginning of 28 Days Later and switched over to the news.
More than the 2008 financial crisis and more than the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has caused dramatic changes in the daily lives of most people on the planet. There is a surfeit of analysts trying to make sense of what has happened and what will happen. Some rely on sophisticated epidemiological models. Others turn to historical analogies. For many of us, however, it might be easier to reach to a genre that has only grown in popularity this century. I speak, of course, of the living dead.
I should know, since I wrote an international relations textbook based on that premise. The first glimmer of Theories of International Politics and Zombies appeared as a Foreign Policy blog post more than a decade ago. That led to two editions, a spinoff article, and a TEDx Talk. So when Foreign Policy’s editors asked what the zombie genre tells us about this crisis, it seemed appropriate to return to where it all began.
[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]
Unfortunately, the zombie genre can explain more about the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic than anyone should be comfortable with. This would seem to bode ill for human civilization: With a few exceptions, the zombie genre always starts with civilization and ends with a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Fortunately, there are key differences between what happens with the living dead and what the rest of 2020 will look like. The zombie genre is overly pessimistic about the adaptability of human beings. We can and should be more hopeful.
Of all the baddies in the horror genre, zombies are the perfect metaphor for a pandemic. This is because other archetypes of horror—vampires, wizards, werewolves—tend to produce soulful, sympathetic characters. In contrast, the living dead are almost always portrayed as a mass of decaying corpses with the simple and baffling goal of eating living human flesh. We cannot reason, negotiate, or bargain with zombies; like a virus, they have no agency. All they want to do is replicate. With such a simple, uninteresting motivation, the zombie genre has been historically viewed as the lowest of the low-rent genres. The interesting part of any zombie narrative is not the flesh-eating ghouls but how humans respond to that threat.
Alas, their response tends to be poor. With the important exception of the rom–zom–com subgenre, zombie narratives are extremely pessimistic about how the human race can respond to the threat posed by the living dead. The late filmmaker George A. Romero was the godfather of the modern zombie, and if there is a constant in his films, it is that human cooperation breaks down in the face of an undead threat. It’s a Hobbesian view of life as nasty, brutish, and short. Humans inevitably turn on one another, which only accelerates the spread of the living dead. If anything, the zombie films that followed Romero’s simply hastened the breakdown of civilization. It took multiple films in Romero’s canon for society to break down. In Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, most of civilization has been wiped out by the 15-minute mark.
The parallels to the breakdown of cooperation during the COVID-19 outbreak are unsettling. At the global level, China was less than transparent with the rest of the world about the nature of the novel coronavirus. Beijing denied access to the World Health Organization and other foreign medical experts and as late as mid-January insisted that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. As the crisis has worsened, Chinese firms stand accused of profiteering. Cooperation within the European Union has also been uneven at best, with most countries erecting barriers to movement within the normally borderless Schengen Area. Many countries have imposed export bans on key medical equipment, paradoxically making it harder to contain the global spread of the pandemic. Forums that proved useful during the 2008 financial crisis, such as the G-20, have been barely functional during the pandemic.
U.S. leadership during this period has ranged from nonexistent to actively debilitating. Travel bans have been announced unilaterally, causing chaos at airports in Europe and the United States, which created conditions that exacerbated the spread of the virus. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has engaged in ham-handed attempts to poach medical supplies and research scientists from abroad. Even within the United States, the Trump White House has actively encouraged states to bid against each other—and the federal government—to secure medical supplies. This has led to bizarre situations such as the governor of Massachusetts trying to secure medical equipment by pleading with China’s consul general in New York by way of the owner of the New England Patriots.
If the zombie genre is pessimistic—or realistic, as we’ve unfortunately seen—about the prospect for cooperation, it is even more pessimistic about the reliability of institutions. By definition, bureaucracies excel at developing standard operating procedures. No pandemic is ever standard, however, which means that even the most competently run institution will likely screw up. The writer Rebecca Solnit has argued that most people respond well to disasters, but in A Paradise Built in Hell, even she acknowledged that the “problem with bureaucrats during crises may be the only thing disaster movies get right.”
The zombie canon is rife with distrust of government responses to the undead. This stretches back to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In that film, authorities provide contradictory information to the public. First, they suggest that people stay in their own homes; later, they reverse themselves and recommend going to emergency centers. Military officials and scientists are seen bickering on camera about why reanimated corpses are trying to eat people. Another Romero film, Dawn of the Dead, opens with a botched raid on a zombie-infested tenement building, in which collateral damage is high. By his later films, the military is functioning more as a criminal gang than an organization devoted to protecting citizens. Similarly, the first third of Max Brooks’s outstanding zombie novel World War Z is replete with the military and government agencies making basic mistakes in battling the undead, with catastrophic consequences.
Again, the parallels to national responses to COVID-19 are unsettling. A few governments—Iceland, South Korea, Norway, New Zealand, Singapore—have responded competently to the pandemic, whereas no great power has covered itself in glory. The virus originated in China, and spread in no small part because local authorities in Wuhan refused to listen to doctors, and were afraid to relay bad news to Beijing. As the country bent the curve on infection, it has attempted to provide aid to other affected countries. Any ephemeral gain of soft power soon dissipated once it became clear that much of this equipment was faulty.
The bureaucratic foul-ups in the United States have been particularly notable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched the initial rollout of the coronavirus test. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s overzealousness in regulating the medical testing sector stymied the widespread production of tests when it mattered most. During all of this, the White House consistently said the coronavirus was under control; in late February, Trump said the virus would disappear “like a miracle.” Every investigation of how the United States handled the first months of the pandemic has uncovered bureaucratic feuds, miscommunication, and generalized dysfunction across the top tiers of the Trump administration.
Some of this distrust has led to behaviors that echo the opening sections of zombie films. The most harrowing scene in Marc Forster’s film version of World War Z is watching Brad Pitt’s character and his family navigate a supermarket that is being plundered by looters. Thankfully, nothing that violent has happened during the current pandemic. Still, the runs on toilet paper, cleaning products, and nonperishable goods faintly echo the panic seen on film.
While the parallels between zombie dystopias and the reactions to the pandemic are striking, the differences matter far more. The most important is also the most banal: It is an unspoken rule in the zombie canon that if you are infected by a zombie, it is 100 percent certain that you will die and then be reanimated. The novel coronavirus is a nasty pathogen, but even the worst calculations put its mortality rate below 5 percent. The reason for the current dramatic reaction is to try to bend the curve so that local medical capacity does not face dramatic spikes in critical cases requiring emergency care. Absent some additional negative shocks, the world should recover from COVID-19 in a similar manner to how it recovered from the 1918 influenza pandemic. A few zombie narratives, such as Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies (and Isaac Marion’s novel on which the movie is based) and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, have a similar arc for the return to normalcy. They are the exception, however, not the rule.
Another difference is that the societal response to this pandemic has been much more constructive than in any zombie narrative. As I argued in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, the genre is far too pessimistic and cynical about the human race. The first few seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead were about the dueling philosophies of Rick and Shane. Rick believed that it was still possible to carve out a cooperative existence even in a world of walkers (what they call zombies); Shane had a more Hobbesian worldview. That debate was over by the fourth season of the show; Shane had died, but Rick and the other survivors had embraced their inner Hobbesian. The most famous line in Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, the basis for AMC’s version, is Rick yelling “We are the walking dead!” Kirkman’s message was that the zombies had turned humans into amoral automatons.
The Walking Dead did not show how civilization actually broke down—and for good reason. One of the reasons that most zombie films fast-forward their narrative past the breakdown of civilization is that it is not actually all that plausible. The few examples of the genre that even attempt to look at how society would break down, like Fear the Walking Dead, are unconvincing.
The reason that city centers are currently vacant is that citizens are heeding the advice of their governments and engaging in appropriate social distancing, all in an effort to reduce the spread of infection. No zombie film has footage of emergency workers and health care professionals being serenaded by appreciative urban dwellers. The stories of toilet paper scrums are the exception, not the rule. To date, the goods distribution system has not been disrupted; even news stories raising concerns about spikes in the prices of staples note that “the world isn’t about to run out of food anytime soon.” Far more common are reports of citizens looking out for their vulnerable neighbors. Polling has confirmed this stronger sense of unity. So far, social solidarity—not anarchy—has been the norm.
The zombie genre has always underestimated the adaptability and resiliency of humans in response to new threats. One reason social solidarity has not broken down is that basic utilities like electricity and garbage removal are still functioning. The very fact that you are reading this sentence shows that, in contrast to any fictionalized zombie apocalypse, you can still go online. Indeed, the ability to temporarily migrate so much human activity to online platforms is a sign that this pandemic, while serious, is not the zombie apocalypse. To put it another way, Amazon, Zoom, and Costco have their issues, but they are more competent and less evil than the Umbrella Corporation.
The zombie canon could still be predictive and the real world take a turn toward the dystopic. The coronavirus has yet to spread rapidly in most of the developing world. If that happens, the possibility of state collapse and massive loss of life must be considered. Panic and distrust can be just as viral as biological pathogens. Combine those feelings with rising gun sales, and suddenly the world of The Walking Dead feels closer.
That said, the zombie canon consistently counts out human beings. Institutional malfeasance and the breakdown of cooperation in the wake of the coronavirus would seem to be consistent with that narrative. At the same time, however, most individuals have reacted appropriately and supportively in the crisis. This is because humans can adapt. The reason that World War Z is considered the best novel in the genre is because Brooks appreciated that both individuals and organizations would adapt to new threats over time. In a race between the breakdown of human society and the search for treatments and vaccines, I would bet on the doctors and scientists every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Never count out a species responsible for duct tape.