There’s nothing wrong with escapist fantasy. The problem comes when we confuse reality with fiction. Some people are doing that right now. In an actual emergency, that’s dangerous.
One of my favorite reviews of This Plague of Days mentioned a scene that takes place at a mall. A large group of young people have gathered together to find shelter. What pleased the reader was that it wasn’t about kids coming together to form a Lord of the Flies situation. They’re doing their best to look out for each other. No warlords need apply. Sadly, some folks seem to be taking the wrong lessons from apocalyptic fiction.
The common fantasy goes a little something like this: My name is Dirk Badass and I’m a prepper/former Special Forces hero/king with what might as well be a castle, an infinite supply of ammo, and all the guns. All of ’em. I have no idea how to grow cabbages but I’m here for the shootin’ without regrets or consequences. Society has fallen and I am the law. Zombies are fair game. Screw all y’all! Also, anyone else trying to survive isn’t an innocent and desperate scavenger like me. They’re all looters and they’re easy targets, too. No, I can’t even spell PTSD. Why do you ask?
As I mention somewhere in This Plague of Days, reality doesn’t reflect that narrative. We came down from the trees and managed to survive many thousands of years camping without ergonomic pillows and CPAP machines because we worked together. We formed tribes that eventually became communities which evolved to countries. Like it or not, we all rely on each other. Something as simple as a #2 pencil requires resources from two or three countries.
Sure, there are a few hermits out there, but those are outliers (and tend to be crazy.) The longest surviving hermit in modern history lasted in the woods almost 30 years. He survived because he broke into other people’s cottages for supplies and shelter. Nobody’s alone, especially in a pandemic that touches everyone and everything.
On Walden Pond was a nice experiment. Henry David Thoreau had a small garden and supposedly lived off the land because he felt the most free in nature. That’s not the entire story. He managed to live there for a couple of years, but he also extolled the virtue of visiting neighbors. He found it especially nice to be social just about the time his poor neighbors were putting dinner on the table. Fans of Thoreau play down that he was a mooch. Not exactly the independent type, after Walden he became a house sitter for Emerson.
We didn’t make it as a species because we are rugged individualists. That’s almost entirely a myth. Cowboys worked farms and ranches. The Inuit worked together to survive. Even lower primates have mutually beneficial social structures. Fight alone, you die. Fight together, we have a chance. Since we’re on a war footing with COVID-19, working together is the attitude we have to take. Rambo would die quickly. Band of Brothers is a realistic military template because that’s how you really fight a war: together.
Right about now, some guy with a stack of food barrels he bought from a televangelist or Alex Jones is getting antsy.
Let’s let that guy talk
“I know how to grow my own food! I don’t need anybody!”
If you know how to grow enough food to support your family, that’s a good thing. Many preppers and doomers do miss that step. How big is your harvest? Will it come in time? Do you know how to deal with mites that rot the roots of vegetables? Do you know not to plant your squash next to your zucchini? Are you good at canning, too? Are you on the grid? Have you got a generator? How long can you keep that going if the power goes out?
“I’ll…uh… I’ll steal fuel for the generator and freeze everything!”
Not sure how long that’ll be sustainable, but try not to get shot when you go out for fuel for that generator.
“I’m not afraid! I’ve got guns!”
Other people have guns, too. But, okay, let’s assume you’re a crack shot and a little sociopathic so you don’t mind shooting your neighbors if they object to you siphoning gas. Do you sleep?
If you take my means of transportation and you’re terrorizing my family with weapons, I’ll cooperate. Then I’ll come back at 3 a.m. to poison your well, steal your crops and burn your house down with you in it. Remember the cardinal rule of every zombie apocalypse: Save a bullet for yourself.
“We’ll establish a perimeter! We’ll have guards.”
Sounds like a big operation. You’re going to need more crops and more scavengers to meet everyone’s needs.
“Then we’ll do that.”
So you’ll have a community.
“A small community, like the Amish. They don’t have to pay taxes. I like that. They seem to do fine.”
Yeah, living Amish could be…interesting, I guess? Here’s something I know having worked with a Mennonite community much like the Amish: When their kids get tumors, they step out of the 18th Century and head for the hospital. How are you set for medicines, hypothetical prepper guy?
“I took first aid in Boy Scouts. We’ll be fine.”
“Excellent! Everyone should have first aid training. How are you set for root canals? Or prostate cancer?”
“Uh…I guess we’ll have to take medical personnel into our community.”
“If necessary. It’s a survival situation! Anything goes! We do what it takes!”
For a guy so concerned with freedom…never mind. Cool, cool, cool. Who’s going to do the blood tests? Got a lab in the back forty? Where you going to get the MRI machine and the dude who fixes the MRI machine? You’re going to need medical supplies at some point. Everybody does.”
“We’ll get everything we need to survive.”
Uh-huh. So you’ll need to establish some kind of set up so somebody can take care of your kids and your grandchildren and teach others how to set a bone and pull teeth without the anaesthesia that mostly comes from China.
“Like I said, whatever it takes, smartass. We’ll gather everyone with the skill sets we need.”
I see. Like the civilization we have now?
“Harumph. I’m starting to think you’re weak and not in the survival mindset. Stop it. Alarmists are tools of the establishment.”
I wonder what establishment you mean, but I want to be fair. This is not the apocalypse you were prepping for. You talked a lot of shit about fighting back against the federal government that was supposed to take your guns away. Obama didn’t and now you’re…what? Pissed at the new government that’s not trying to take your guns away? Conflict is your thing, man, but who’s making you a victim?
“It’s about freedom! For instance, me and mine protested forced house arrest so we could go out.”
That’s not what house arrest is, but even if it were, you got so angry because you wanted to go get haircuts. Gotta be honest, that doesn’t sound very badass.
“We don’t like being stuck inside. That’s no way to live.”
Dying on a ventilator is no way to live. You do want to protect you and yours, right? That’s what the guns are for, I guess.
You can’t shoot a virus so I guess the guns are to intimidate…who? Cops working crowd control and issuing citations? I thought you were pro-police.
“We carry guns to defend ourselves, from whoever.”
Protection. That’s what all that canned soup in your basement is for, too, right? In case the food supply chain breaks down, I think having food set aside as backup is a good idea. I’m starting a garden. That said, you know governments are asking you to isolate for your protection.
“I’m uncomfortable that you’re agreeing with me on anything so I’ll move the goalposts back and say this virus is a hoax and I need to work to eat.”
Second thing, first. I understand not having money set aside for emergencies. I’m not rich, like, at all. Huge companies claim to have nothing set aside for a rainy day, so why should people like you and me? I sympathize with that problem. How about we take 90% of the money that goes to the Pentagon and save every citizen of the USA, starting with you.
Enlightened Socialism. The threat is disease and economic collapse, not terrorists. More terrorists are getting killed by COVID-19 right now, not drones.
“I don’t believe in handouts.”
“It’s almost May 1st. How are you going to make rent? That $1,200 bucks that’s coming should help, right?”
“My sister got her check but it’s already gone for essentials. I haven’t got my check yet. I didn’t file taxes in time so I might never get it.”
I am sorry to hear that. I’ve got a lot of friends in the same situation. That $1,200 sure won’t last ten weeks like they said, huh? How about another emergency stimulus check to stop you from becoming homeless? I don’t want you to starve. For everyone’s sake, testing and treatment should be provided free of charge to the individual.
“A check would be helpful but the government doesn’t move that fast and probably won’t do it. Besides, how are they gonna pay for it? Freedom ain’t free.”
By reallocating tax dollars. Social programs aren’t free and no one ever said they were. It’s about getting your money’s worth from the taxes you pay. I have to say, you’re a very good person.
(Eyes me suspiciously) “Yeah? How’s that, libtard?”
You have to be a very good person to be so concerned about how the government is going to pay for your bailout.
I mean, it’s so selfless. You’re willing to go homeless and starve rather than let anyone help you. Is that pride? I want you to know, I don’t look down on anyone who needs help. Mega-corporations don’t get embarrassed for all the tax breaks and assistance they get, so we shouldn’t feel bad. Everybody needs help now and then.
“Don’t talk down to me! Obama — “
Obama’s not in charge. Hasn’t been for years.
“China — “
Covered up how bad things were, but they weren’t the only government to downplay the danger of a worldwide pandemic, were they? (Smiles.)
“The media — “
Also not in charge of the pandemic response.
(Prepper Guy mumbles inaudibly and curses.)
I guess we could wait for the billionaires to save us. They’ve got plenty of spare money to fund research, expand research, supply PPE, ramp up testing —
Prepper Guy laughs. “Never gonna happen. No such thing as spare money to those people.”
You’re right, Prepper Guy. Those same people want you to rush back out to feed the economy, especially the funeral home industry, I guess. Sounds like we actually need to pool our money and use government in an organized way to get things done. It’s possible. Other governments have been successful in curbing COVID-19 death rates.
“Yeah? Name one.”
“Shit. I heard about that. Name two more.”
Germany and Cuba.
“IT’S ALL A HOAX!”
Oh, yeah, We were going to get back to that, weren’t we? Dude, if you honestly think the world pandemic is a hoax, I am sorry. Are you also a Flat Earther? Did you not see the chaos in Italy? If it’s a grand conspiracy, what’s the goal? I don’t understand why all these doctors and nurses would cooperate with that and keep the plot a secret. Surely, these can’t all be crisis actors.
“The plan is to make my president look bad!”
The same president who hasn’t expressed a word of condolence to the victims and their families? The guy who ignored repeated warnings from the intelligence community and tried to wish it away? The leader who never says sorry and blames everyone but himself?
“Saying that stuff would imply guilt!”
Gee, I wonder why that would be?
(Pauses. Eye widen.) “Shut up.”
The same guy who, in the middle of a horrific crisis, mused about injecting disinfectants? And then claimed it was sarcasm? Even if that were true, doesn’t riffing about this to bait the media on a national stage make it worse that he did that? Do you really think now, when you and your family is in danger is a time to joke around, just to see what would happen? I don’t think now, with 56,000 dead Americans and more to come, is the best time to yuk it up.
“Okay, people are dying but more people die of other things!”
Shouldn’t we try to prevent death, though? Isn’t that what governments do? To work for the national defense to protect their citizens? I thought you were a pro-life kind of guy. Suppose you choose which of your loved ones will perish. You don’t want to be that guy. You’re better than that.
“If we all stay inside, we’ll all starve to death.”
False choice. That’s what the bailouts are for. When a ship is sinking, you bail it out. I know this isn’t easy and there aren’t a lot of choices. When the options suck, you choose what’s least damaging. If you get a flat tire, you don’t shoot the other three.
“But, stupid, if everybody keeps in isolation, the economy will go in the shitter.”
You could give everyone the all-clear today, but not many people will go out tomorrow. Telling people it’s safe isn’t enough. It actually has to be safe.
“The president says we’re doing the most testing in the world. #1!”
You’re #41 in testing across the world. To reopen the economy, the science says test and contract trace so the contagion doesn’t spread.
“This is all nonsense. You just want me to be scared. I’ll go out.”
That won’t save us from another depression. Your way, more people die a horrible death and the economy implodes, anyway. I’m worried you’ll make other people sick and spread the disease, starting with your own family. I guess that’s the difference between you and me.
“Oh? How do you figure?”
You don’t care about my life but I want to save yours, because we’re all in this together. The virus doesn’t care who you vote for, but it does hit the poor and otherwise disadvantaged harder. Plus, I’ve got some dangerous comorbidities going on.
“Don’t be silly. I’m not trying to kill you– “
But you don’t care if I die. I don’t think you want to commit murder on a mass scale. You’re not evil. You’re just misguided by people who don’t care about you. You follow people who don’t care about you and I worry you’ll only realize it on your deathbed. Or at a memorial service for people you care about.
“It appears this hypothetical conversation has played out.” (Crosses arms.) “I’m not going to admit I’m wrong.”
That is the pattern. Look, I only mean well. I don’t expect you to admit you’re wrong, certainly not to me. By now, you hate me. If it makes you feel better and less invested, I don’t need your capitulation. Just please think about it and consider what’s more likely. If you don’t have empathy, no one can teach you that. But look at it as self-interest: It would really stick it to your perceived enemies if you lived.
Please note: Though a fiction that will probably only make the like-minded nod, Prepper Guy is a composite of many people I’ve observed in comment threads on Twitter and Facebook. I wish them well and hope they get the help they need.
~ I am Robert Chazz Chute, author of two zombie apocalypse trilogies, This Plague of Days and AFTER Life. I’ve written a bunch of killer crime thrillers and novels about the end of the world. My latest, Citizen Second Class, pits the rich against the poor in the hellscape of Atlanta.