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World War Z Author Calls Coronavirus Pandemic A "Wakeup Call"

Disclaimer: This article discusses a fictional pandemic, but the novel coronavirus currently causing a pandemic of COVID-19 is both real and serious. For information on COVID-19, you should consult a reputable public health resource like the World Health Organization or the National Institute of Health.

With confirmed cases of COVID-19 increasing at an exponential rate, the entire planet finds itself in the throes of its most serious pandemic disease in a century. COVID-19 has already changed our way of life in the U.S., and the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. As it turns out, Hollywood has been predicting this kind of event for a long time, and viewers are turning to old classics like Outbreak and Contagion to make some sense of the new normal.

Max Brooks is one writer who's been thinking about pandemic disease in the context of his creative work for years. The World War Z author is a kind of resident scholar when it comes to the fictional spread of disease. In a recent Reddit AMA, Brooks offered his take on how the current, real-life coronavirus crisis compares to the zombie outbreak portrayed in his famous work. World War Z the novel was turned into the 2013 Brad Pitt movie of the same name, and the source material is credited with providing an accurate and well-researched account of how an uncontrolled pandemic might spread. So who better to weigh in the current state of affairs than the author himself?

Is the coronavirus comparable to the zombie pandemic in World War Z?

Brooks was cautious not to equate COVID-19 with the zombie pathogen that brought the world to its knees in his seminal work. With that in mind, he still considers the current crisis a "wakeup call" for a world ill-equipped to manage a serious pandemic. 

He wrote, "I think the coronavirus is as dangerous as we allow it to be. This is not the end of the world, but we need to take it seriously, implement measures to curb the spread, marshal the resources of government and industry behind a vaccine and treatment. As regular citizens, we need to think about what we can do: social distancing — washing hands, avoiding crowds, and for God's sake, stay home if you're sick! We can't just think about, 'Can I get it?', we need to think about, 'Who can I infect?' We have the power to turn this around, but we need to make the right choices."

That all sounds a lot like the recommendations coming out of the World Health Organization and its domestic counterpart, the Center for Disease Control. 

What Brooks realized in the course of researching while writing World War Z is that human beings tend to be slow to rally an institutional response to a threat like COVID-19. As depicted in his book, rich countries tend to take their public health for granted. This can lead to situations like the horror unfolding in Italy. All the measures outlined by Brooks are intended to mitigate the spread of the disease at home, as a means of "flattening the curve," and reducing the impact on our soon-to-be overburdened health care system.

World War Z feels almost prophetic today

Published back in 2006, Brook's novel is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War." The story unfolds through a series of interviews and first-hand accounts of the people on the front lines of the outbreak. This backward-looking framing device lends a retrospective tone that's unusual for a thriller, as if Brooks is presenting a planet's collective recollection of an existential disaster. One of the most salient features of World War Z is the implied warning to world governments not to downplay the threat of a pandemic. On Reddit, Brooks expressed his hope that the U.S. government doesn't take the same head-in-the-sand approach that he depicts in his book.

The personal stakes are high for Brooks. His father, film and comedy legend Mel Brooks, is 93 and in the highest risk demographic for serious complications should he contract COVID-19. "I have to be very careful about infecting him," Brooks wrote on Reddit. "That's why I've cancelled some appearances and might possibly have to pivot my whole book tour to a virtual tour. Right now I'm preparing for my son's school to be closed. I think about my dad and my mother-in-law (who's had lung cancer twice) and all the vulnerable people in my life I could infect if I'm not careful."

Even if we're not members of the highest risk demographic, let's all take a cue from Brooks and practice good hygiene to protect our vulnerable friends, family, and neighbors from the coronavirus.