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O'Neill Institute Halloween Special: Pandemic Preparedness and the Zombie Apocalypse

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If pop culture is anything to go by, then zombies are coming for us. They’ve invaded our television screens, computers, movie theaters and bookstores. Zombies freely walk the streets in countries around the world. Sometimes they even participate in fun runs. There is significant potential for zombieism to run rampant in the US, spread quickly across the globe and evolve into a pandemic of unprecedented death and destruction. Truly, the zombie apocalypse may be nigh.

A pandemic of zombieism presents unique challenges to emergency preparedness, particularly given how little is known about this unique pathogen. The basic facts are obvious – zombies are reanimated undead; “mindless monsters who do not feel pain and who have an immense appetite for human flesh. Their aim is to kill, eat and infect people.”  Symptoms of zombieism include slow, shuffling movements, slurred speech and signs of physical decomposition, such as rotting flesh.

Further, we know that zombieism is not air-borne; rather, it is a blood-borne pathogen that is transmitted from person-to-person via “intimate contact,” such as biting.  It also exhibits sustained human-to-human transmission – one of the necessary criteria for a disease pandemic. It is highly contagious, and zombies appear to possess an unquenchable desire for “spicy brains”  – and also to infect others with the disease. Zombieism demonstrates extreme pathogenecity, with the infected facing a 100% likelihood of fatality and reanimation as a living corpse.

Beyond this, the exact origins of the zombie pathogen are unclear. It is thought to be a virus, possibly created by the mutation of existing viral agents that cause mad cow disease or prions. There may be an animal reservoir for the pathogen, but nuclear fall-out, voodoo curses, and the desire for revenge from beyond the grave are also implicated in causing zombieism.

Statistical modelling suggests that a zombie pandemic will threaten the very existence of human society, “unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead.” Faced with a prolonged outbreak, a doomsday scenario would result, with every human ending up infected or dead. Further, recent episodes of bioterrorism in the US raise the possibility that the zombie pathogen could be weaponized and used to unleash a devastating wave of terror upon the people of America.

So how would the United States deal with a potential zombie apocalypse? At an international level, an outbreak of zombieism would trigger the operation of the International Health Regulations (2005). Under these regulations the US would be required to report a zombie outbreak to the World Health Organization, which would declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The World Health Organization could then deploy personnel to assist in national response efforts, as well as coordinating international monitoring of the spread of disease, and distribution of vaccines and treatment. Other national governments may impose quarantine measures, restricting the entry of US citizens into their countries to prevent the plague from spreading globally.

At a national level, a zombie apocalypse would bring into play a complex set of emergency preparedness laws, operating at both state and federal levels. States would bear the main responsibility for responding to a zombie outbreak. Under emergency management and civil defense statutes, state governors could declare a state of emergency, activating local emergency response systems. Officials would also alert relevant state and federal agencies, the police, the fire department and medical emergency services.

On the ground, state officials could ban public gatherings, impose curfew, and issue mandatory evacuation orders. For citizens who were unable to evacuate, officials could create safe zones where the uninfected could gather, commandeer transport to move people into these zones and use law enforcement agents to create a perimeter against the infected.

Public health legislation grants state public health officers sweeping powers to deal with public health emergencies. Once a state of emergency was declared, medical officers could compel testing for zombieism, as well as mandatory treatment and immunization (once a vaccine became available). Public health officials could seize control of healthcare facilities, and impose rationing of medicines – particularly important measures once hospitals became overrun with the infected and states began to experience mass casualties.

Although states take central responsibility for pandemic preparedness, the federal government has expanded its role following 9/11, the 2001 anthrax attacks and Hurricane Katrina. It has created new infrastructure and policies for emergency preparedness, all of which would assist states in responding to a zombie apocalypse. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released guidelines on how citizens should prepare for the zombie apocalypse.  Following a zombie outbreak, it would also make public announcements on the progress of the pandemic, and work with local health departments to develop a vaccine.

In the event of a national emergency, federal legislation authorizes military deployment to suppress insurrection and supplement state law enforcement efforts. The federal government could deploy the National Guard to states where zombieism was rife, so that military personnel could protect the uninfected, control looting and civil unrest, distribute food and water, and support response efforts by state police, fire departments and emergency medical services.

Military deployment would be one of the most critical federal functions during a zombie apocalypse. Given that zombies are mindless, flesh-eating automatons, it would be near impossible to establish effective quarantine measures. And even if an effective treatment could be developed in time, zombies are unlikely to submit to it willingly, making it difficult to distribute and administer treatment. The only real option would be to “hit hard and hit often,” through a full-scale military operation. But it is questionable whether emergency preparedness measures account for the possibility of having to systematically exterminate the infected in order to protect survivors.  

Further, the use of lethal force against zombies would raise unique civil liberties issues. Executive power is largely unconstrained in emergency situations, and while public health powers are subject to procedural safeguards, individual freedoms must be balanced against the need for a swift and effective response. In determining whether and how to use military force against the undead, a critical question would be the legal status of zombies and whether they are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as the uninfected.

In his research on the tax and real estate implications of a zombie apocalypse, Adam Chodorow concludes that zombies would be considered alive under most states’ laws. That being the case, is it ethical to summarily execute zombies without due process of law? Or should an attempt be made to detain zombies and place them in isolation – despite the risks that they pose to the human population?  These issues would become particularly salient if a treatment was developed that allowed individuals to recover from zombieism. In these circumstances, we might ask whether the government could legitimately eradicate large numbers of zombies that would otherwise have a chance of recovery.



Once the zombie pandemic was contained, hard questions would be asked about whether the government moved quickly enough, whether its use of force was proportionate, and whether response efforts infringed on the liberties of both the uninfected and the undead. If we survived a zombie apocalypse, there would be tough days ahead as the survivors rebuilt communities and restored functioning to damaged and depopulated cities. Fortunately at this point, the zombie apocalypse is just an interesting hypothetical that we can use as a “table top exercise” to test out preparedness frameworks. So until zombies really do take over the world, Happy Halloween!


For those with an interest in further exploring zombieism, a significant body of research is developing on the subject. In addition to the sources mentioned in this essay, Dr Steven Scholzman, a Harvard psychiatrist, has analysed the effect of zombieism on the brain’s higher functions, concluding that zombies suffer from cerebellar and basal ganglia dysfunction, as well as hyperphagia. The widely renowned Dr Austin heads the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, which provides training, presentations and lectures in responding to zombie pandemics. The University of Florida has created a simulation exercise for responding to a zombie pandemic, and students at Stanford University have developed a course on Zombie Anthropology.

An article by Jeremy Youde on zombieism and the International Health Regulations inspired my thinking on zombies and pandemic preparedness, and this article also draws on a paper by Philip Munz and colleagues, which statistically models the effects of a zombie outbreak. Dan Hougendobler made the suggestion that I turn a series of joke emails into a blog post. I greatly appreciate the feedback I received from two real-life experts in infectious disease control, Dr Shanika Perera and Dr Martin Reeve (my father). Finally, thanks goes to Sam Redfern for his editorial assistance, and for being zombie-ass-kickin’ awesome more generally.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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