How to Survive a Global Pandemic

A Modern Survival Guide Interlude

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You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might need to know. And one thing everyone ought to know is how to survive a global pandemic — especially now!

There are several quick, easy steps that you can take to minimize your exposure and risk during a pandemic scenario. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Respect the threat!
  • Respect the quarantines!
  • Avoid conspiracy theories!
  • Listen to the authorities!
  • Don’t panic!

Each of these points are equally important, so let’s dive in. And please, wash your hands and cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough.

Respect the Threat!

It’s a common response to pandemic scenarios for people to go into denial and try to pretend that everything is normal. It’s not hard to see why; pandemics are big, nasty events that disrupt our lives and over which we have almost zero individual control. Denial is an effort to regain control; if there’s nothing wrong, there’s no reason to make a change, right?

This is the kind of thinking that kills people. Respect the threat, and take the issue seriously. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all you, to pretend that everything is alright when a serious illness is sweeping the world. This applies to all the other points — if you don’t respect the threat, you won’t follow the rest of the advice in this article, and that makes you part of the problem. Don’t be part of the problem. If the CDC is saying that a disease is a threat, it’s a threat — and I don’t care how many sit-ups you did this morning, or which essential oils you use.

Respect the Quarantines!

Quarantines are annoying. They get in our way, they prevent us from doing the things we like, and they impact our quality of life. Nonetheless, if you are in an area that is under quarantine, stay in quarantine. It is the simplest, easiest thing you can do to both protect yourself and others.

The point of quarantine is to keep people from coming into contact with each other, and thereby prevent the spread of diseases that are transmissible from human contact. It’s important to remember that despite our long record of medical advances over the last century, we still can’t do much about new diseases in the short term. In the long term we can develop antibiotics, targeted treatments, vaccines, and large-scale treatment programs. But those efforts take years, and in the meantime the disease is out there jumping around.

That makes quarantine one of the most effective tools we have to stop the spread of diseases, because in a situation where there are no effective cures for a disease (like now) the best defense is to simply to avoid being in contact with people who might have the disease. Respect the quarantine, and sit your ass down on your couch.

Avoid Conspiracy Theories!

Of all the threats that come with a pandemic, conspiracy theories are among the most insidious and potentially deadly. Conspiracies pop up like wildfire every time there’s an epidemic or pandemic situation, for the same reason that people go into denial: it’s an effort to regain control, coupled with distrust of local authorities. Sometimes (in fact quite often) it’s a good idea to distrust your authority figures, but during a pandemic is usually not one of those times.

We’ve seen multiple instances of very dangerous conspiracy theories in the past, and they are instructive. For example, during the last Ebola outbreak there were multiple incidents of attacks on doctors by villagers who believed conspiracies that the doctors were spreading the disease. This hindered the response to the epidemic and directly contributed to the death toll. We’re already seeing conspiracy theories pop up in the US around the spread of COVID-19, and as fast as they get smacked down more raise their ugly heads.

You have an obligation — not an option, an obligation — as a citizen and a responsible adult to be extraordinarily suspicious of any claims that a particular group, party, nation, corporation, alien race, or mole person is responsible for the spread of an infectious disease. Yes, this sort of thing has happened in the past, but it is not at all in the interests of any modern nation state to start a global pandemic. Not even the terrorists want to do this.¹

If you see a claim that someone, something, or some group is profiting from a disease, do your homework and fact-check. Check Snopes. Check Politifact or Check the news. DO NOT blindly believe the proverbial man at the pub. Your odds of survival will be better, and you won’t be part of the problem.

Listen to the Authorities

Now is not the time to fight the power. During a pandemic the powers that be, whatever their other faults, whatever your personal issue with them, are the control nodes for the medical and social response. It is in your interest to allow medical and social responses to proceed without undue interference from people who don’t know what’s going on (i.e., you).

In general, it is in the interests of authority groups to try to protect the citizenry during a pandemic situation. In general, it is better to try to follow the guidelines that authorities issue during a pandemic, particularly when it comes to quarantine protocols, resource distribution, and medical guidance. Freedom of speech, movement, and action all come under pressure during a pandemic, and that’s simply how it has to be. If you start to see guidelines that are obviously, patently horrific (e.g., mandatory sterilizations, murders, ethnic cleansing) THEN and only then should you rebel against the authorities.

Otherwise, if the governor tells you to stay home and asks your church to close for a few weeks, stay home and close the church. Your right to go to Denny's is not worth getting sick, your congregation can pray from their living rooms, and it’s not worth you spreading the disease unintentionally to meet up with large groups in a pandemic situation.

Don’t Panic!

Last but not least, don’t panic. Panic is the absolute worst thing you can do. Pandemic situations are bad, but temporary. It’s not worth buying eight months’ worth of toilet paper, or cleaning out an entire aisle of canned goods. It’s not worth packing up the family and decamping to a cabin in the woods. All you are doing is actively contributing to the problem of shortages, or contributing to the movement of people, both of which are the last things you need to be doing.

Remember, even during a pandemic the movement of goods still goes on. We continue to get shipments of toilet paper. We continue to get shipments of food. Is it worth stockpiling essentials and lifesaving medicines for a month’s worth of quarantine? Yes. Should you prepare for the End Times? No.

And if you’re in a pandemic hot spot, the absolute last thing you want to do is leave your home. Stay safe, stay in quarantine. If you try to move to a “clean” area, at best you’re leaving a relatively safe space (your home) and going out into an infectious area. At worst, you’re actively spreading the disease to a new area.

Last but not least, now is not the time to go to the doctor or hospital unless you absolutely, positively need to. The sniffles are not equivalent to COVID-19. Find out what the actual symptoms of the pandemic disease are. Only go to a doctor if you have them and your life is in danger, you are in serious pain, or you have another life-threatening illness. Make sure to check the local news and your doctor’s website to make sure you’re going to the right place and doing the right things before your visit. If you think you have the disease, follow the local authority’s guidance on where to go, what to do, and how to do it.

So stay safe, stay hunkered down, buy supplies for a month, and keep it real. For most of us, pandemic response boils down to being a couch potato and catching up on our Netflix binge-watching, and that’s literally all you have to do to avoid being a part of the problem.

Keep Calm, Carry On, and Help Your Neighbor

In summary, keep calm, carry on as best you can, listen to and work with your local authorities, and one last thing — help your neighbor. Not all of us were able (or could afford) to buy out the grocery store. If your neighbors need supplies, share. Give to charities and volunteer groups. As we say over and over in this series, don’t be an asshole! We all have a role to play as responsible, compassionate, informed citizens in a pandemic situation. We will get through this.

Carry on, and godspeed.

¹Remember, even the most tyrannical authoritarian nation is worthless if all the people die. Not even the most ruthless despot wants to reign over a pile of skulls, because then what’s the point of being a ruthless despot? So if you see a conspiracy theory that claims “so-and-so is spreading the virus,” almost without exception the reality is that no, they’re not. Pandemics are not selective of their victims, and it is never in the interests of even authoritarian states, to say nothing of democracies, to unleash them on the world.



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