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Pandemic pandemonium

Pandemic pandemonium

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My junior year of college, I was quarantined in my dorm with a moderately high fever three times. Once because I had the flu (everyone was worried about swine flu at the time), once because of some absurd complications from a semi-impacted wisdom tooth (yes, really), and once because of fifth disease (a mild relative of measles most common among schoolchildren).

I got sick fairly often throughout my university years, which I blame largely on cafeteria food and inconsistent sleep patterns. But that school year was especially bad, as I was pulling weekly all-nighters for my honors philosophy class (as Descartes said, “I read, therefore I pass”) and taking a lot of weekend road trips when I should have been sleeping or getting ahead on reading “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English. Also, the summer before, I had been basically unemployed and couldn’t afford to eat many fruits or vegetables. Sleep deprivation plus nutrition deficiency equaled repeated quarantine.

My immune system is in much better shape these days, no doubt thanks to my adult sleep schedule and all the carrots and spinach I eat.

When the world as we know it ends, I doubt many people will have an abundance of kale or naps. Deprivation will become common. This will be especially unfortunate if the apocalypse takes the form of a pandemic, when we’ll want our physical defenses in tip-top condition.

Honestly, until this week I never understood the difference between the terms “epidemic” and “pandemic.” (They’re of Greek and Latin origin, not Middle English. My degree could only cover so many dead languages.) If you’re similarly uneducated, let me explain.

An epidemic is just a sickness that has a higher incident rate than projected. So if 10,000 people in Albany get the flu this fall, instead of the expected 2,000, that’s an epidemic. But if that epidemic spreads, and suddenly way more people than expected everywhere from Alaska to Spain to Zimbabwe have the flu, that’s a pandemic. Epidemics are local; pandemics, global.

Besides its obvious physical threats of sickness and death, a pandemic could also cause societal shutdown. When parents are afraid to send their children to school or stop by the grocery store, when legislators and farmers and plumbers are afraid to go to work, life won’t look the same.

And these days, outbreaks have the potential to spread much faster than in centuries past. No longer do plague-infected rats have to stow away on Chinese donkeys headed on a months-long journey down the Silk Road to Turkey. Now we have overnight flights from hither to thither and nigh.

Oh, and we don’t just have to worry about pandemics spreading organically; now there are bioweapons of mass destruction, too.

Potential pandemic threats include influenza, cholera, smallpox, plague, tularemia, avian flu and viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola — and who knows what else mad scientists and terrorists have concocted. At least we have SARS under control, right?

The advice experts give to survive a pandemic is mostly common sense. Preventatively speaking, eat your veggies, sleep as much as you need to, stay active, take your vitamins, stock up on emergency supplies, wash your hands often, stay aware of the news.

Once an outbreak occurs, avoid contact with potentially infected people and animals, especially large groups of them. Wear a mask if the threat is airborne, gloves and such if it’s fluids-based. And avoid sticking yourself with needles abandoned on the side of the road; I know it’s hard to resist, but try.

Ultimately, you’re most likely to survive an outbreak if you are away from centers of population, if you are alone.

With natural or cosmic disasters, people have a choice: You can suspect everyone you encounter has desperate and nefarious intentions to steal your supplies and enslave your children, so you avoid or attack others; or you can believe that survival depends on trust and working together, so you invite everyone you encounter to join forces and share supplies.

In a pandemic, there’s not much choice. Regardless of personality, worldview or level of desperation, everyone becomes a threat. Anyone, even a healthy-looking sister or co-worker, could be carrying the virus in its early stages.

Doomsday by disease seems the loneliest scenario. It’s you, and maybe your family or a few friends, against and away from the world. A pandemic would just suck.

Especially if it turned everyone into zombies.

Next week: Let’s be real, you knew this was coming.

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