The Walking Brain Dead

In every modern version of the “Zombie Apocalypse” narrative, small bands of plucky survivors fend off endless hordes of infected, shambling, braindead individuals. The zombies have no appreciation of community, shared responsibility,  or collective security. Instead they are driven by base instincts and a complete disregard for anything other than their own immediate self-interest. The irony in this narrative is that while the world currently faces a very real pandemic crisis, it is the victims who are being forced into the role of desperate survivors, while the non-infected are acting like the brain dead hordes.

For the past few months the world has been struggling to get a grip on the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Upwards of 5000 people have lost their lives to this horrifying disease, with almost 15,000 incidents of infection across West Africa.  To say that this is a tragedy of epic proportions is an understatement.  Aside from the personal toll upon the families of those affected, the communities they live in, and the countries battling to gain control of the situation, the effect upon the entire West African region has been substantial, with the World Bank predicting a possible $32 Billion in economic impacts alone. In other words, the Ebola crisis is not a laughing matter.

If only the international response to this catastrophe was equally as serious. The rather lack-luster response has been so bad that even the normally reserved UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has gone on the offensive. Applauding the efforts of the US, Britain, and France in their moves to (finally) get some skin in the game, Moon called out other major players, stating “It’s time that those other countries who really have capacity … provide financial and other logistical support.” In other words, states such as China and Russia, along with India and Brazil  as up and coming “BRIC” nations, need to step up to the plate and demonstrate why they should be considered pillars of the international community. Similarly, you know things are getting pretty bad when the head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, calls for immediate actionon the basis that “It is not a matter of choosing whether to do it or not. It’s just a question of when we pay the price for it.” Just in case our national leaders were not paying attention, pretty much everyone with a global agenda has determined Ebola in Africa to be a major threat to regional stability. As international leaders, they might want to get with the program given that this is a textbook example of why international society is needed in the first place.

On the domestic plane, individual countries have responded in a multitude of ways, from Nigeria’s considered approach involving comprehensive public health education programs and exemplary infection control, to North Korea’s outright panic and the imposition of total lockdown in order to avoid an impending Zombocalypse. The idea of Ebola as a kind of pre-curser to a global zombie pandemic is, of course, completely fantastical, but Kim Jong-un’s regime is not the only paranoid group making the same tenuous connection between this disease and the apocalypse. The Chinese state news agency was forced to issue a statement in order to counter rumors running wild on Chinese social media that Ebola victims were returning from the dead in order to feast on the living. Given that these same rumors suggest eating raw onions in order to ward off infection, you can only imagine the eye rolling going on at the Chinese Center for Disease Control.

Having said that, the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) has its own hands full countering the hyperbole and rhetoric that substitutes for analysis here at home.  Under a barrage of attacks from the media and the more insane fringes of the US political spectrum, the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has taken to pointing out that while Ebola has killed one person on US soil so far, influenza kills upwards of 30,000 a year. Given that less than half of the population bother to get inoculated against an actual epidemic in our midst, you can sympathize with the CDC’s exasperation over the hysteria currently masquerading as the Ebola debate.

A good example of the kind of knee-jerk, anti-scientific response the CDC is facing from our civil authorities is the issue of travel bans. Both international and domestic health experts have stated categorically that travel bans make responding to this outbreak significantly harder. Closing off air links to West Africa means that the most useful bottlenecks for the infection (airports) are rendered useless, as people are forced to cross land borders – a situation that is almost impossible to monitor. Even worse is the imposition of travel bans against international health workers. By far the most pressing need is for more personnel to travel to and from affected regions, in order to fight the disease at its source. By making it almost impossible for volunteers to return home, countries are virtually guaranteeing that the crisis cannot be contained. With what can only be described as a mounting sense of frustration, Ban Ki-moon’s people consistently try to get the world to listen to reason, emphasizing that “the best way for any country to protect itself from Ebola is to stop the outbreak at its source in West Africa.”

The anti-science crowd here in the US goes one step further, professing that the constant efforts of the UN and the CDC only go to prove the dire threat to the country.  Against all the evidence to the contrary, a popular theme among a particular section of the political spectrum has latched on to Ebola as yet another political weapon to wield in the never ending war of attrition that is modern US politics.  For example, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) has gone on the record as stating that “Every outbreak novel or zombie movie you see starts with somebody from the government sitting in front of a panel like this saying there’s nothing to worry about.” In other words, we should all start panicking as the Obama administration is clearly just trying to keep the sheeple quite.

So, the level of our public debate is that politicians are referencing George Romero movies as if they are documentaries. To paraphrase the zombie maestro, “when there’s no more room in hell, congressional representative will walk the earth.” The ironic thing is that if the Ebola virus really were a harbinger of the zombocalypse, we actually have a response ready to put into place. Intended as a “training exercise” in contingency planning, the US Strategic Command report CONPLAN 8888 lays out a series of scenarios for dealing with a pandemic zombie infection. At least you can’t accuse the US government of not thinking outside the box when it comes to preparing for imaginary threats – real world disasters on the other hand, not so much.

At the end of the day Ebola is a trans-national issue, and one that requires a direct, well-supported international effort to combat. From this perspective alone can it be seen as similar to a zombie outbreak. Prof. Daniel Drezner of Tufts University wrote an excellent exploration of this exact issue – Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Perhaps Ban Ki-moon should start leaving copies around the UN Security Council chambers. If rational, scientific, economic, and humanitarian appeals won’t work then maybe a little hyperbole is what will do the trick. You have to hope that at least some of the world’s leaders are not all brain dead, right?

This article was originally written for the UCLA Foreign Affiars Journal –

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