Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

I spend quite a bit of time wondering about the zombie apocalypse. Like why I and a few drinking buddies will be sole humans out of 7 billion who aren’t turned into zombies? If I put gym treadmills outside every window on my house, will that be enough to stop the zombies coming in, and can I generate electricity that way? And why do we suppose it will be a ‘human’ zombie apocalypse? Maybe we’ll be inundated with zombie llamas. Here in New Zealand someone made a movie about zombie sheep. Very funny it was, too.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

But really I shouldn’t worry. Zombies aren’t real. Unlike the ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is very, very real – and no laughing matter. So why the zombie thought? Well, a friend of mine suggested that the social impact of the ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has a lot in common with the way we imagine a zombie apocalypse in the west. Everybody you know and love is suddenly snatched away by a quick and lethal infection that seems to have come out of nowhere. It spreads by touch. If you help them – as you must, because we are all human and care is the highest human virtue – you risk getting it. It devastates families. It destroys organised society. And nobody is immune. Nobody.

This is actually true of any pandemic – ebola, of course, is far from the first serious disease to erupt in a population. I suspect that the fact that we envisage the social impact of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ in terms that so closely match a real uber-pandemic disease outbreak is indicative of the depth to which our fear of pandemic is etched into our cultural make-up.

None of that reduces the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. There is only one up-side. Viruses transmit in two ways. There’s airborne – usually meaning you breathe them in after somebody nearby has sneezed. Or sometimes the infected mucus settles on a surface, you touch that surface and fail to wash your hands, then transfer the virus to your mouth when eating. The other main mechanism of transmission is ‘serum’, meaning the virus is carried in body fluids.

Ebola is of the latter variety. You have to make direct contact with the patient’s body fluids. That makes it hard to catch. Medical professionals run a high risk while treating victims, as do family in close promixity to a victim; but it’s not in the ‘catchability’ league of airborne viruses.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Down side is that ebola remains live and infectious after the victim has died. That’s why health officials have been carrying bodies away with full bio-hazard procedures.

So why has it been happening? Ebola was first noticed in West Africa in the mid-1970s, though it was around before then. But it was always isolated. The disease was SO quick and SO lethal that outbreaks burned themselves out. But this time it hasn’t. From the viewpoint of the virus it’s a great survival mechanism. For humans? Not so much.

That’s not the only reason why it’s been so difficult to contain the outbreak. By one of the ironies that dog the real world, the countries it’s hit are the least able to handle an emergency of this kind. Borders are arbitrary and spanned by social groups, a function of colonial-age map-making – making ‘border closing’ difficult. Infrastructure is poor by western standards. Crowded living conditions and poor urban sanitation make serum transmission easier. Another issue is that it takes a week or ten days after infection for the symptoms to show – but during that time, the victim is infectious. And that makes for a perfect storm.

Ebola is unlikely to spread widely in the West as it stands. But if ebola becomes entrenched across populations in West Africa, as seems likely, it’s got more opportunity to mutate. And that’s where the bad news starts. Just to put ebola into perspective, the current lethality of about 90 percent is well above the 30-60 percent of the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. It’s way above the 10-20 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sure, there are vaccines in the works. It takes time to develop them, time to manufacture them – and time is something that just isn’t available right now. Certainly not for the poor folks affected in West Africa. Maybe for the world. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Looking for the missing spirit of Christmas…with zombies…

We went to the local mall on Sunday. It was packed, of course, with the usual shopping zombies, their minds destroyed by the glitz and glam.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

The Zombie Christmas Maul

Whenever we visit the mall, She Who Must Be Obeyed forbids me to shuffle along behind them, matching their gait and murmuring “braaaaiiins….”

Well, I’m not forbidden, but she won’t walk hand-in hand if I do, instead she’s on the other side of the mall saying things like ‘I don’t know that weird guy.’

Being the weekend-before-the-weekend-before Christmas, there were a LOT of people shopping last Sunday, interspersed with cellphone-toting teens whose minds were miles away, and toddlers drifting aimlessly around the whole lot like the wayward satellites of some Jovian supergiant. Every so often, one of the squidlings would squeal with the exact pitch and timbre of a gym shoe being scraped across a polished floor.

Looking at the way everybody had been reduced to brainlessness by the pressure to buy, buy, buy for Christmas, I couldn’t help thinking we’ve lost something.

It’s Christmas. It’s a time for caring. A time for families. A time to think of others. A time – well, it’s Christmas Spirit, isn’t it.

What’s it become? A marketing frenzy. A shallow exercise in consumerism. A concerted effort to extract as much cash as possible from the wallets of many who cannot really afford it.

Here in New Zealand, the shops will be open right through Christmas Eve – and open again on Boxing Day when, inevitably, it will be ‘sale time’. I believe that’s true elsewhere too.

Where has the spirit of care gone? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Fun holiday stuff – with some history, geekery and writing stuff. Regular writing tips, science geekery, history… and more… returns in the new year. Watch this space.

Running the zombie Christmas mall gauntlet

it’s Christmas again…and that means a visit to (dramatic chord)… The Mall.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

The Zombie Christmas Maul

It’s the same every year. The endless shuffle of zombiefied shoppers, drifting around shiny glass-and-glitz caverns, a mass of humanity with glazed eyes and shopping bags, punctuated by toddlers who lurch aimlessly out from the crowd, shrieking and hyperventilating. There are teenage boys who smell like they’ve just showered with a cocktail of propionic acid and brevibacteria, girls who giggle and text somebody three feet away, just because they can, all endlessly circling like – well, endlessly circling things who like circling endlessly.

And then, in the midst of this glittering temple to the worst excesses of shallow consumerism and the transient disposability of post-industrial A-gen society…Father Christmas. He’s moved here from the North Pole apparently.

There’s something about these places that turns the brain to mush and reduces people to zombiefied numbness. I am not allowed to punk them – you know, do the zombie walk behind these  shoppers and murmur ‘braaaaaiins’. Well, I can, but She Who Must Be Obeyed has to walk on the other side of the mall atrium for a while afterwards.

But honestly!

It’s done deliberately. People buy more if their mind’s switched off. And I have to feel sorry for the poor folks that have to work in these places. Malls are the twenty-first century equivalent of the workhouse when it comes to conditions.

Every mall I’ve been to from North Sydney to Lower Hutt to Bangkok has been exactly the same. The Australia and New Zealand ones even look the same. Is this the unity in diversity beloved of anthropologists?

I’ve got readers of this blog from Melbourne to Florida, from the Netherlands to Cape Town, from Houston to New York to France to Moscow to Dunedin. Am I right that it’s the same everywhere? The look. The raw horror of it all. The commercialism? The mindless advertising. The glitz. The ….the…


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012 

Shopping for a really spectacular pair of trousers

Last Sunday my wife and I went to the local mall looking for a pair of trousers. About ten minutes into our slow zombie shuffle with the other shoppers through glitz-riddled corridors of terror I leaned over and murmured to my wife, sotto voce, ‘Brains…braaaaaiiins…’

Alas, the escape code didn’t work. We had to get the trousers anyway. She Who Must Be Obeyed prefers Nattily Dressed Husband to Slob-o-Scruff Spouse of the Shed. Then we had to brave the parking lot with its endless lines of circling cars. I swear I saw at least three 1957 Plymouth Furies.

I would ask whether there’s anything weirder than these malls. But of course, there is. In the Netherlands, a gentleman transformed his dead cat into an RC helicopter. Don’t laugh, it’s true.  Must ask my relatives if it’s flown over Soest.

What’s the weirdest (and funniest) thing you’ve discovered this week?

Coming soon: something not weird at all. A launch and a contest. Watch this space.

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2012

Heads up folks – are you ready for the zombie apocalypse?

My sister has a plan for handling the zombie apocalypse when it comes to her home near Utrecht. A scheme for the instant when they burst into her workroom moaning ‘hersenen… heeeeersenen’ (well, they’re Dutch undead…)

She’s a fabric artist who dyes and spins artisan-craft wools. The spinning equipment, she tells me, is easily able to defeat the living dead. She hasn’t detailed her ideas – but I guess if you see a headline like ‘Soest zombies gemaakt om te breien’, you’ll know what happened.

Got me thinking. That apocalypse might happen anywhere. Do I have anything in my writing office to deal with the ravening dead? If I was in the US I’d give the zombies a burst with the kitchen cupboard Mac-10 before advancing on the undead horde with the family Mossberg .410. If I were an Australian I’d flick a couple of boomerangs, stuff the nearest zombie into the esky, slam the lid, then parade out in my budgie-smugglers and strike them all blind. Or if I were Bear Gryllis, I’d turn the first into a survival shelter, four into firewood, and make the rest into a helicopter to fly home..

However, I live in New Zealand. No spinning wheels. No guns. There are budgie-smugglers, but I don’t own any such shreddies and never will. Am I gonna die? No chance. You see, I have the ultimate anti-zombie device.  In fact every Kiwi home has one – and Peter Jackson showed us what any good Kiwi zombie hunter could do with one. Bwahahaha! Yup – the common or garden rotocut. Eat spinning steel, undead zombies!

So – when zombies burst into my writing office, I’ll be out the window, into the shed, and desperately tearing at the pull start on the old Masport. Ours is a bit hard to start…Hmmn… Niggling worry. And I do have one other little niggle too. If the living dead outnumber the living 1,500,000,000 to 1, who says somebody else will be the zombie? Just asking, you understand.

What would you do if the zombies burst in while you were quietly working on the computer?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

The epic fail Alan Turing fast food adventure

I don’t know if it’s just me, or whether the world is generally a funny place but doesn’t realise it. I went into a fast food franchise the other day and this happened:

Me: I’ll have a large caramel sundae to take away, thanks.
Attendant: Sure. Small, medium or large? (Actually he said ‘Suresmamedorla”, but I could lip read)
Me: Er – large.
Attendant: Caramel, chocolate or raspberry? (‘Carmachokorasry’)
Me: Um, caramel.
Attendant: Sure. Eat here or take away?

I’ve had similar conversations with lift control panels. I know it wasn’t the poor guy’s fault – these jobs numb the mind and they have to follow the script anyway. But it was pretty funny, in a kind of epic Alan Turing fail way.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

The 2011 Christmas Zombie Mall Shuffle

It’s Christmas again, and yesterday that meant it was time for She Who Must Be Obeyed to drag me off to (drum roll) The Mall.

As far as I am concerned malls are vampires that suck money and will-to-live, all glitz-and-mirror with endless rows of cheap jewellery shops, pedicure booths and smartphone outlets. They are identical from Melbourne to Luton – hey, I even found one in Bangkok (the Siam Centre) that could have been transplanted from anywhere else. All of them home to endless hordes of once-were-humans, the shopping dead who amble vacantly in witless circles, slack mouths breathing that dread word  – ‘credit caaaaaaard…’

Shopping in the mall for me consists of hurtling into the place, picking up essential bloke stuff (1/16 PzKW VI Tiger I model, engine oil, power tools, that sort of thing). Then getting out. Fast.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

She Who Must Be Obeyed has other ideas: ‘That’s a nice coat. Try to look interested. Now we need to get cards and. OOOH, SHINY! Yes, we need to get to the – er – Matthew, stop wandering off. CROCKERY SHOP! Oh how about those towels, we need new towels, why don’t we sit down at this coffee place or try that Indian take-away even though it made you sick last time and…IS THAT A FLYING SHARK?’

There is no escape. Malls are the Hotel California. Even if you can find an exit, it’s guarded by armies of young mums with toddlers zing-splat bungied to their wrists, four year olds who back into you, randomly squealing like ambulatory car alarms, dads with a blank look and hang-dog expression, honk-voiced teenage boys who smell, old ladies with walkers, lost husbands…and…and…

Bah humbug.

Copyright © Matthew Wright