I’ve been reading zombie stories recently and enjoying them, Max Brooks World War Z for a second time and Frank Tayell’s Surviving the Evacuation series (1-3 so far). However, there are a number of things though that I find it hard to keep my disbelief suspended in.

Zombie Stories

So I completely understand that zombie stories aren’t about the hard science, or even about zombies. They’re underlying tales of the human struggle with death. We also like the post apocalyptic survival thing. Who doesn’t think they could break the rules and survive when society breaks down? It’s a cool escapist fantasy, and there are hordes of zombie movies and books out there that pander to it.

Zombie Pandemic

English: The Spanish Influenza. Chart showing ...
English: The Spanish Influenza. Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pandemics happen. The last major fatal one was probably the 1918 Spanish Influenza. The key thing I recall from doing a bit of epidemiology at uni (about 1989-90, so possibly I’ve misremembered) is that to spread well a disease needs its host to be able to spread it. Fatal diseases tend not to do well on that score.

Also if something makes you sick rapidly then people will quickly tale precautions to stop getting infected. When the disease is fatal you can expect a rapid learning curve. Look at how Ebola has been approached. Initially Ebola had a high fatality rate, although it turns out that was just because the outbreak wasn’t getting the correct treatment.

Anyway, these are the things I find it hard to suspend disbelief about with zombie stories.

  • Speedy infection of individuals
  • Ineffective government responses worldwide
  • Rapid worldwide spread
  • No prior warning of the Pandemic

Speedy Infection

Some zombie stories, especially movies, have people getting bitten and practically immediately become zombies. I can see why movies do this, they need the pace of the story to be rapid. However, it’s completely wrong. Nothing affects people that fast apart from chemical agents. Even food poisoning takes a couple of hours before the vomiting starts. A bite spreading a contagion to the brain should take minutes to hours. The immune system will be trying to prevent it. Also there is the blood brain barrier for it to contend with. Also some people should naturally be immune, which is missing from most zombie stories.

Ineffective Responses

English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: resear...
English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: researcher is working with the Ebola virus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somehow Western governments never see the zombie apocalypse coming and it simply overwhelms the entire country before they can act. I can get this for poor third world countries that barely function as states. However Western countries have contingency planners for pandemics, extreme weather, terrorism and anything else you can think of. As an example look at the government responses to Ebola cases in the UK and the US. Also 9/11. The responses were rapid and effective. Possibly over the top too.

That said, if the government responds well then you don’t get a zombie apocalypse story…

Rapid Worldwide Spread

This is closely linked with how people turn rapidly. The faster individuals turn into zombies once infected the slower the international spread. Countries already screen people on arrival for disease. If you present at a border with signs of infection you will either be refused entry or quarantined. As soon as news of the zombie disease is known they’ll be looking for that. So international spread relies on either evading the border guards, slow non obvious carriers, or a wave of zombies to overwhelm the border.


No Warnings

Pandemics don’t spread instantly. If you listen to the news carefully you’ll see bits about Pandemic warnings. Few of these manifest in our lives, perhaps because our governments are prepared?

Even if there was an incurable and highly infectious disease out there. I think that there would be weeks of warnings, if not longer, for most countries. The only people that might get caught without warning are patient zero and those encountering it. The further away geographically the longer the warning period.