I’ve recently watched a few reruns of the Doomsday Preppers episodes from National Geographic, seven years old now. The coronavirus brought the series back to mind.
The 1918 flu pandemic killed perhaps 1% of those infected, resulting worldwide in about 50 to 100 million deaths (3% to 6% of world’s population then); 675,000 Americans were among them. U.S. life expectancy dropped by 12 years during the year of the pandemic.
The new virus’ mortality may be about 2 to 3 percent. Spread over, say, a third of the planet that’s a whole lot of dead people. Complicating things, infectious patients can infect others without exhibiting symptoms, a troubling aspect of getting this virus under control.
But for the world to end in any prepper sense mortality would have to reach perhaps thirty-five to sixty percent, roughly the same kill rate as the Black Plague in the 14th century – an estimated 75 to 200 million people throughout Eurasia.
Still, I wasn’t especially worried until I saw this notice:
Risk of a Flu Pandemic is Ever-Present, but the CDC is on the Front Lines Preparing to Protect Americans
Somebody from the government will come to help us. Given that assurance I just bet, right now, some prepper cells are calling in the clans, ready to bunker-up.
We’ve been through this before, you know, thanks to all the apocalyptic literature. In both The Scarlet Plague (1912) and Earth Abides (1949), civilization is done-in by disease. Alas, Babylon (1959) follows Florida survivors after nuclear war. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) has the Catholic Church again collecting books, copying texts, and preserving knowledge for thousands of years following a full world nuclear exchange. The limited nuclear exchange told by Warday (1984) sees New York City abandoned and California not (the fictional Golden State did build a wall to keep out glowing refugees). The valiant defenders of social order in The Postman (1985) battle “hypersurvivalists” preying on decent folk who really just want reliable mail delivery. One Second After (2009) reduces U.S. population in successive 90-day die-offs from 300 hundred million to 30 million following an electromagnetic pulse assault. Yet, whatever the cause, the connecting theme is the disintegration of American society and the plucky people who survive to rebuild.
Being an insulin-dependent diabetic my own survival beyond the first 90-day die-off is unlikely, but I know how to make “survivalist insulin.” All I need is a pig and its pancreas, five c.c. of concentrated sulfuric acid and, oh, an anatomy book to show me exactly what a pancreas might in fact look like. But a centrifuge, electricity to run it, a gun to protect it, and a supply of pigs and I am good to go.
I would not rate very high on the “prepper score” from Doomsday Preppers. Neither do many of the peppers, for that matter. I never saw anyone score a hundred; most fare much lower. Yes, I did watch it. I was a bemused gawker, but mostly I like figuring out the flaws in the plans before the experts weigh in. One guy decides he should have a couple more black-powder cannons, back-up for the one that always misfires. How about just one cannon that works, if you need a cannon. It should not, I’d like to tell one lady, take two hours to bug out. Nor do I think the family rushing rubber rafts to the nearest waterway is an especially good way to escape a Virginia coastal tsunami; don’t you want to run from all that water? I can’t decide what’s scarier: the thought of social and economic collapse or the idea these might be the people to survive it.
But there are plenty of people thinking about that, survival. The Y2K freak-out in 2000 and the threatening rattle of Iranian reprisal, TSA pat-downs for three-year-olds, the sour failures of FEMA, debt ceiling and national debt, Congress and, well, Congress: All these and more nourish uneasiness about the way things are headed. The task of negotiating the twenty-first century, now twenty years in, leaves many wishing for something a little more basic, simpler.
The prospect of a world collapsing under the weight of its own folly would take care of everything, including the annoying neighbors, the idiot boss, and the federal government. Plus there is always an upside to the downside, even in the end of the world. The Black Plague so reduced European population there was a resulting sharp increase in wages, creating a real middle class, accompanied by wide land redistribution.
What did the guy say?
It’s the end of the world as we know it,
and I feel fine
(time I had some time alone).
This piece is revised from a previous piece published originally in 2013.