The last epidemic scare for the Western world was Ebola, a virus that still claims hundreds of lives in Africa every year. There was a measure of worry when two health care workers from the US were brought home from Liberia in order to receive treatment, and as you might have guessed, there was public outcry. Why bring this plague overseas and endanger the whole US? The truth however is that Ebola, though quite deadly and terrifying, cannot realistically produce a worldwide outbreak of infectious disease. It spreads through contact with infected body fluids; to avoid Ebola, don’t touch the sweat, blood, or bodies of the sick or dead.
This logic is inadequate in the battle to suppress our fear of pandemics, however. We first became carriers of this paranoia with Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague (1994). The book suggested that humans would stumble into rainforests and jungles and be felled by the deadly viruses lying in wait to pounce upon an unsuspecting population; “Don’t fuck with nature”. By the close of the 90s, we were drowning in the threat of biological weapons, throwing all the international monetary force we had at combatting sinister, lab bred, disease. This fear was again raised in 2004 and 2007, with the reports of H5N1, known more commonly as bird flu, painting a vivid future of cross-species infection in the Western consciousness.
The fear is not unwarranted; lest we forget, plagues are responsible for wiping out significant percentages of the world’s population throughout history, deploying across the scope of humanity like errant gravestones. In 165 CE the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, along with millions of his subjects, was felled by measles. The bacterial pathogen Yersinia pestis is responsible for Justinian Plague, which raced from the Northern tip of Africa across the Mediterranean to the Eastern Roman Empire. In 542, rats and the fleas on them carried the disease as far north as Germany, where millions perished.
Following that was the eponymous Black Death of 1348-50, again caused by Yersinia pestis, but spread by human fleas and through the air this time. The plague spread through the Silk Road, across the Mediterranean, and through to Europe, killing tens of millions all across the globe. Perhaps the ultimate pandemic, the 1918 influenza outbreak, took the lives of 40 million people worldwide.
A pathogen must impel its human host to be the distribution system for its germ; in our universe, this is accomplished through sneezing, coughing, or passing fluids. The virus is able to use a system for expelling irritants and harmful particles to spread itself. Sneezing might hep us to lessen the overall quantity of viral bodies in our systems, but it at the same time guarantees that our peers go home with a little bit of whatever is affecting us. A virus, therefore, wants to be sneaky. A virus that doesn’t cause symptoms will be infinitely more successful than one that does. Conversely, if you are laid low instantaneously, the pathogen is too powerful, immobilizing you before it can spread.
The plague of Athens, caused by some deadly pathogen, possibly measles or Ebola, hit Athens in the Summer of 430 BCE, during the infancy of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles, who was the leader of Athens at the time, knew that Sparta was ravaging the lands surrounding the city, and in the good conscience of a ruler developed a defensive strategy; bring all citizens in to the city from outside and leave the rest of the countryside to the invading Spartans. Athens, roughly four square miles at the time, ballooned from 150,000 to more than 350,000 in the span of days. Pericles didn’t make provision for the newly arriving refugees, and most had to set up tents in the few open spaces within the walls. The teeming camps became breeding grounds for infection.
From the sea arrived the plague, along with the ships carrying provisions for the inhabitants of the besieged city-state. From Thucydides:
People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stomach-aches and with vomitings of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, and this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterward.
In Zone One, this draws two immediate comparisons. The first is the closeness of humans in cities, and in Fort Wonton. If a disease were to hit the humans within the fort, where would they go and how would they escape the unseen Skels, eating them from within and playing havoc on their immune systems? Close proximity, scrounging for food, lack of proper hygiene, and psychological stress all compound into the perfect vehicle for disease to spread. If they had been struck by some infection besides that of the living dead, the survivors would be dealing with a significantly harder foe to trounce. I’m not saying Fort Wonton doesn’t have enough to deal with already. Just that things would be much worse if this very real thing that already exists in our world also were a pressing problem for the besieged Athenians in Wonton, regardless of the invading skels.
The second is the symptom of the disease. Spreading through contact with a bite or scratch is one of the least effective ways to transmit disease. All the worst killers of humanity have been small when not concentrated, only flaring up in great tumult like the first world war, or industrialized cities in the 1800s. Typhus, for instance, spreads through a human body louse and its infected feces. Scratching bites can be enough to transmit the disease. In Serbian prison camps in the first world war, typhus was rampant, due to the aerosolization of louse feces. This caused a contact borne disease to blossom into an airborne one. In short, the perfect storm of conditions can cause short-term evolution of a disease borne of lice into an airborne and explosive pandemic. This is also the case with the influenza outbreak of 1918. A mild and common flu broke out in the US and spread across to troop ships bound for Europe, and from those ships, the disease found its way to the trenches, and the medical camps, and the puddled pits where men sat shoulder to shoulder in mud and gore. Where dying and dead men shared the same space as the living for the moment. This delivery system was like an extreme vetting of the flu itself, vastly mutating it in a short period of time. It left the Western Front and rolled over the planet like a snowball going down a hill. It gathered strength everywhere it went and capitalized on weakness. It infected hundreds of millions of people, killing 2.5% of those who were infected. How much more difficult is it to fight that enemy? You can take down a skel with a pop to the brainstem. In the very real cases of cities forced to close up or huddle together in the event of disaster, the very real threat of infectious disease should be more than terrifying enough to have to add flesh-eating hordes to the equation.
Zombies not only represent an aimless humanity, but also a slow and terrifying pandemic that consumes the world slowly. The survivors live in a city. The disease factory that they inhabit is much the same as that of the Athenian plague, highlighting how a disease of low virulence can incubate a city like New York, where the sick are trapped with the well in close quarters. Infection then spreads like an itinerant flame in a dead pine tree. Disease evolves in true Darwinian fashion, and germs that ravage more effectively will stamp out the milder strains. Repeated access to fresh hosts facilitates the evolution and transmission of the more powerful strain.
This all points to an idea behind the Metropolis class; the most significant requirement for the expedited evolution of an infectious disease and its transmission is the human disease factory. This could be a city, a refugee camp, a war-torn battlefield with trenches. Anywhere where the wounded and the well, the healthy and the sick, the living and the dead, share close proximity.
Thankfully, a zombie apocalypse has not come to pass, and doesn’t seem all that likely. However, people die every day from human-adapted disease. Malaria kills 1 million children annually. Tuberculosis still exists, and it’s worldwide. Polio, despite science’s most concerted efforts, has never ceased to cripple and kill infants and toddlers. Fighting the existing monsters in our world is absurdly more conscionable, yet we insist on the imaginary foes. It may be less exciting, less visceral, but it’s a surefire way to ease suffering across the globe.
If we can learn anything from the history of plague and disease, and from the cautionary tales of zombie invasions, it’s that the human race collectively should do its utmost to refuse the social conditions that enable virulent infectious transmissible diseases. Preventing the factories for disease – overcrowded slums and hospitals, vast refugee camps, trenches, and war – is the best protection for humanity, in more ways than one. While doomsters in the world await a zombie apocalypse, the real doomsday is far more likely to come from our disease factories and our social world treatment than from a mindless and greedy effigy with a bottomless stomach that you can’t argue down.