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SYFY WIRE zombies

Scientists and zombie expert Max Brooks evaluate our COVID-19 response at Comic-Con

By Brian Silliman

Has humanity learned anything from its ongoing battle with COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic? Have we learned what it might take to survive future threats — let alone the current one, which is far from over? What about threats that, so far at least, have only existed in horror and other genre fiction? If 2020's next horrible twist is a zombie apocalypse, how might we fare?

One zombie expert and a small horde of scientists held a panel as part of Comic-Con@Home to try and answer some of these questions. The short of it? Let's hope that 2020 doesn't give us the gift of surprise zombies in Act 4. 

The panel included Max Brooks (author of World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and Devolution), as well as biodefense experts Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University, and Dr. Gigi Gronvall of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and Dr. Jarod Hanson of the USAMRIID and University of Maryland Medical Center. What valuable information did they have to give on how to prepare, or failing that, survive? 

"Threats are all around us," moderator Justin Hurt said as he began the panel. Hurt listed off a long list of recent, horrifying pandemics, all of them with huge death tolls, but none of them had the numbers that the current pandemic has. The numbers continue to climb. Testing is constantly an issue, and certainly is now — the ability to get the right equipment necessary has proved to be a giant hindrance, as has a lack of assistance from the government. 

With all of that on the table, it seems that matters of genre fiction have little to offer, but Hurt affirmed that the world of fiction can inform (and possibly help) our all-too-real world. What are the applications of the lessons learned? 

"I really question if we've learned any lessons along the way," Dr. Hanson said, referring to the awful laundry list of pandemics that Hurt had just rattled off. "I really don't think we've learned anything thus far, and what we've learned with COVID specifically is that this is the ultimate group project gone bad. We can't get people to stay home, we can't get people to wear masks. So how do we improve upon that when you really have nowhere to go but up, in my opinion?"

He went on to point out how quickly other pandemics (such as SARS) were dealt with quickly in other countries, and the utter failure of the United States to do likewise. "We clearly have screwed up things that we never imagined as pandemic planners or public health planners that we wouldn't have screwed up before." 

This lack of imagination was devastating. As Hanson puts it, the question we should really ask is, "how did we screw up so badly?" As to how we succeed in the future, he recommends listening to public health experts. 

"Every day is a biology news day, and science is really the only way out of this mess," Dr. Gronvall added. Even beyond just dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, science is our best defense against the next pandemic — or even a fictional zombie pandemic that would have a 100 percent mortality rate. "We need to support [science] and make sure it's there when we need it. The whole thing has been a disaster, but the science has been the most hopeful part of this." New technologies and new collaborations have helped, but things slow down "when science hits the clinic," as she says. 

"There's no excuse for it taking so long for us to figure out that Hydroxychloroquine was not a good drug for COVID..." she added. "Something that we need to fix? Science and health security experts need to be at the highest levels of governing." According to Gronvall, this should be as important to those running this country as nuclear weapons. "This has been a failure to act." 

Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate maintained that different scientific disciplines are most definitely linked, and need to work together much more — virologists and physicists should be friends, to put it simply. One thing that she thinks needs to change? "There's so much mistrust of scientists, specifically in the US," she said, adding that we need to get to a point where the next generation understands the science. It's about saving lives, not taking away freedom. 

Dr. Koblentz then went into what we should have learned (and what we definitely did not learn) from the zombie apocalypse genre. "One of the good lessons is to expect the unexpected," he said, noting that pandemics such as this are usually a surprise, much like zombie outbreaks. He also believes that we won't ever really be able to identify a "pillar event" that can be blamed as the main cause — it will be closer, as he puts it, to what we see with The Walking Dead or World War Z. "We never really learned what the origin of the virus is that caused the zombie outbreak," he said. 

The "human factor" is also a big point, according to Koblentz. "In most zombie literature, humans are as much of a threat as zombies early on because of fear and ignorance, misinformation, disinformation." Later on in these stories, it becomes a game of survival, an "if you have what I need, I'm gonna take it" scenario. Koblentz argued that global competition taking place over cooperation as not helping anything right now. 

He also made it clear that fighting zombies and fighting our current pandemic is not the same thing, saying, "viruses are much harder to see and fight than zombies." Virus-bearers don't show bite marks, for example. 

What lessons, then, does Brooks think we should be learning? He began by making it clear that though he's done a lot of research for his books, he's just a "regular schmuck" and he doesn't have a "Dr" in front of his name. Now a part of a think-tank and immersed in the research, Brooks was surprised how little of the information was hitting the public consciousness.

"The biggest threat to us as a nation is the gap between the American people and those who protect them, and we really see that with this, because one of the reasons this has been such a problem in the United States is that this is a generational problem. If this had hit us forty years ago there would have been enough Americans still alive and in positions of authority who still remember the dark days of polio, and whooping cough, the pre-vaccine days," Brooks said. We've lost the "muscle memory" and "gut terror" of germs, according to Brooks, and that's why we are where we are. "You can understand something, but you don't get it in your heart and in your soul." 

What do we do about that, then? Brooks quoted Eddie Murphy, saying, "It's not worth a warm bucket of hamster vomit if you can't take this knowledge and communicate it to your boss." It doesn't matter how smart and thick any big book on viruses is — if you can't take it, get the average American to understand it, then our leadership has failed. Brooks demonstrated the sound of failure by dropping one such book to the floor. 

This is usually where the artists come in, Brooks added, remarking on the role of artists during World War II. "It's all hands on deck in the mass communication department." It's about taking the essence of what the experts understand, and making laymen like Brooks understand why it's worth it. "We can do it," he said, imploring that a waiting army of storytellers needs to be brought on board. He also added that you can't gut science teachers for young students and then expect them, later in life, to be able to learn about airborne droplets. 

Ultimately, the feeling from Brooks and all of the experts was that this pandemic will definitely not be the last. Whether it includes zombies or not (here's hoping), will we be able to handle the next one differently?

To quote Dr. Hanson, "Maybe this time we'll learn." 

Click here for SYFY WIRE's full coverage of Comic-Con@Home 2020.