The COVID-19 pandemic might be a few steps removed from the apocalypses depicted in popular fiction, but storytellers can play a vital role in helping people understand the very real threat of global epidemics, according to Max Brooks, author of the zombie plague novel “World War Z,” which was adapted as a 2013 film starring Brad Pitt.
Brooks — who also wrote “The Zombie Survival Guide” — spoke in a Comic-Con-at-Home panel on “Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak.” He pointed out the general public’s disregard of science and argued that the biggest threat to the United States is “the gap between the American people and those who protect them.”
“One of the reasons [COVID-19] has been such a devastating plague in the United States is it’s a generational problem,” Brooks said. “If this had hit us 40 years ago, there would have been enough Americans still alive and in positions of authority who still remember the dark days of polio and whooping cough — the pre-vaccine days when viruses and bacteria used to kill and cripple a large portion of our population.”
Most members of today’s U.S. population “grew up post-World War II and don’t have the muscle memory and gut terror of germs,” leading to the current situation in which the coronavirus has blindsided America, Brooks said.
Brooks quoted a 1981 Eddie Murphy skit in arguing that all the scientific knowledge in the world isn’t “worth a warm bucket of hamster vomit” if it isn’t succinctly communicated to the average American. That person is unlikely to have cracked open a book such as 1994′s “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance,” which Brooks held up as an illustration.
“That’s where the artist comes in,” Brooks said. He cited the 1940s documentary series “Why We Fight” as an example of how Hollywood previously used cinema to educate the general public — in this case, about the war effort. “We need to think of creative ways of distilling the essence of what [the science community] understands and make [general audiences] understand why it’s worth it,” he added.
Such an effort would not necessarily have to be pure propaganda, Brooks said. As an example, he referenced the TV show “Schoolhouse Rock!” which expressed core concepts about politics, history and mathematics to a child audience through songs. An overall appreciation for science needs to be stressed in today’s world, he added.
“You can’t pay science teachers pennies and not teach kids about basic science and the scientific method and what it means to look at data, ... and suddenly when they’re grown-ups, expect them to learn about airborne droplet theory,” Brooks said.
Other participants on the Comic-Con panel included Dr. Jarod Hanson of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases — who called COVID-19 the “ultimate group project gone bad” — and biodefense expert Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University. Koblentz said that America’s “poor track record” of monitoring pandemics eerily mirrored the trend seen in movies and books in which “the zombie epidemic catches everyone by surprise.”
Watch the full panel below.