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It’s actually kind of embarrassing. I’m the chair of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Alliance, which uses the prospect of the undead as a fun way to think and talk about general disaster preparedness. (The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse takes a similar approach.) And I study how people help one another in times of disaster and uncertainty. None of us really know how a zombie apocalypse could go down, so it can stand in for many different kinds of disasters we might face.
Yet, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even have a go bag, let alone a proper emergency kit. I was too busy, I told myself. But the truth was that I had been putting off general emergency preparedness because I was afraid of doing it wrong. I couldn’t get started because I worried I would forget something, that my go bag wouldn’t be perfect, that my failure is what would ultimately kill me in the zombie apocalypse. Some preparation is better than no preparation at all, I told myself, but still I couldn’t shake my fear and avoidance.
That changed in late February. I was doing fieldwork in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, when I confessed to my friend and colleague Keith, who happens to be an expert in disaster preparedness, that I didn’t have a go bag or emergency kit. He gave me a look that parents usually reserve for stubborn 4-year-olds who refuse to flush the toilet: eyebrows raised, head cocked slightly to the side, eyes that said “Are you fucking kidding me?”
A little while later, he put down in front of me a beat-up black canvas pouch not much larger than a hardcover book. It was an enhanced first-aid kit. He had once used the items in that very kit to help somebody who had gotten into an accident in front of his house until medics arrived. I took that lifesaving first-aid kit with profound gratitude—it was to be the first item in my go bag. He later brought me a small cylindrical metal container with a cord attached to it: a waterproof case for matches. “Don’t forget to refill it with matches,” he told me.
In the two weeks after this exchange, COVID-19 grew from a background concern to a foreground crisis. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. Just a few days later, #coronapocalypse was trending on Twitter, and many of us entered voluntary lockdown. Others, like the friend who gave me his first-aid kit, jumped into action. He was deployed as a commander in the National Guard in New York, on the front lines of the growing pandemic.
We are in a time of great change and uncertainty. This virus is upturning nearly everything about how we live our lives. But it is no zombie apocalypse. There are no hordes of undead clawing at our screen doors, no roving motorcycle gangs, no widespread famine, just regular people trying to survive and make a living in the shadow of this deadly virus. The COVID-19 pandemic is bad, but it’s not as bad as pandemics can get (compared with, say, the Bubonic plague). Still, it’s a wake-up call about our general readiness (or lack thereof) for emergencies.
When the reality of COVID-19 started setting in, I decided it was time for me to start getting my zombie apocalypse act together. I took the black first-aid kit that Keith had given me and put it in my fieldwork rucksack, deciding that it would do for now as my starter go bag. Then I started adding things: a wool long sleeve underlayer that had a hole in the elbow, a few granola bars, a new backup battery for my phone.
In the days that followed, I continued adding to my go bag. I also started preparing emergency kits for our home and cars, as well as go bags for our three kids based on the recommendations at ready.gov. Inspired by my friend’s generosity in seeding my go bag, I even bought some basic supplies for my brother and his wife when I discovered they didn’t have a kit.
Embarking on such prepping in the midst of the current pandemic is tricky. It can feel selfish if supplies of essential items are limited. It is definitely the case that civilians not working in health care shouldn’t be stockpiling masks or other supplies that are needed on the front lines.
But we can be smart about how we prepare, like having a pantry stocked with nonperishable foods to last for a few weeks. A well-stocked pantry means fewer grocery trips, fewer trips mean fewer opportunities for transmission for everyone. (Just don’t buy all the toilet paper because you are worried that everyone else will.) There are other things we can do, too. Keith, when he is not deployed in the National Guard, works as the assistant director of Cornell’s Cooperative Extension program. Cooperative Extension is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and works through land-grant universities to provide research-based knowledge about food, farming, and more. He tells me that between the 1950s and 1980s, Cooperative Extension efforts helped individuals and households in being much more self-reliant, with education efforts to teach people canning, pickling, and other methods of food preservation so that they could store many weeks of food. Being more self-reliant through projects like these can not only help us manage our own risk, but also give us greater feelings of efficacy in a time where so much seems out of our control. (I have found great comfort in my fermentation practices in the past few weeks, making sourdough bread, yogurt, and kombucha.) Perhaps these kinds of practices will find a more central place in our lives now, just like we are seeing a resurgence of the Victory Garden.
Smart prepping should focus on the big picture, not just the coronavirus. For example, just one week after WHO declared COVID a pandemic, Salt Lake City was hit with a magnitude 5.7 earthquake. There were no serious injuries, but it was an important reminder that COVID-19 is not the only risk we are facing right now. Rather than getting ready for one potential emergency, we should instead focus on developing the capacities that make us ready for a full spectrum of potential emergencies. This is called the “All Hazards” approach to preparation, though it’s more fun to think of it as prepping for the zombie apocalypse.
As humans, we are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. This means that if you are not managing your own risk, you can end up putting others in harm’s way. By being ready to take care of yourself and your family for a few days in the case of a grid-down zombie-related emergency, you can increase the resilience of our entire disaster response system and let the National Guard focus on killing the ravenous undead (or, more realistically, distributing food to those who can’t afford to stock up).
In addition to getting our go bags and emergency kits ready at our homes, this is a good moment for thinking about how we can create more resilient systems for dealing with disasters on a societal level. This involves making sure that we are funding and otherwise supporting federal agencies tasked with responding to disasters. It also means creating social and cultural norms that help us survive and care for one another during times of need. I co-direct something called the Human Generosity Project, where we study that exact topic. We have discovered many social norms that help people survive and thrive during uncertain and risky times. For example, people across societies build networks of mutual aid that they can call upon during hard times. These need-based transfer systems typically have two central rules: only ask for help if you are genuinely in need, and if you are asked for help, provide it if you are able to without compromising your own basic needs.
My friend Keith is still deployed in the National Guard in New York. The other morning, he texted me that he was sick with COVID-19 and was commanding his troops from inside quarantine. He is simultaneously battling COVID-19 inside quarantine and outside of it.
It makes me feel rather useless when I see what great sacrifices others are making during this time, while I continue to teach my classes (albeit remotely), keep my research projects going, and try my best to take good care of my kids. But one thing has definitely changed for me since a few weeks ago: I don’t feel powerless anymore about preparing myself and my family for emergencies. If we can all manage our own risks a little better, people like my friend won’t have to take as many risks for the rest of us.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.