What would life be like immediately after a pandemic?

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a popular genre, and there's no shortage of it. But from the books I've read and movies I've watched, most of it is set either during the early phases (pre-apocalypse) or years later, with people aimlessly roaming the countryside. Being fiction, and being meant to entertain, most of what I've seen has been lacking on the discussion of logistics. (Please, if you've seen books or movies that delve more into this, please let me know. This is fascinating to me.)

I initially asked this question on Twitter, but 140-character tweets aren't really conducive to a proper discussion: What do you think would realistically happen if a pandemic wiped out 75% or more of the world population?

The key word here is "realistically". Setting aside romantic notions of finding a secluded cabin stockpiled with food and water and "waiting for it to blow over", what would actually happen in the immediate aftermath of a worldwide catastrophe?

For the sake of discussion, let's set some basic assumptions:

  • A "super-flu" kills 75% of the world population. The rest are immune, at no further risk of infection. This leaves, at current estimates, about 1.7 billion people, in the same geographic distribution as usual (leaving about 77.2 million people in the US). Only humans are affected.
  • This happens within a matter of days, not weeks or months. People die within hours of infection. Once infected, people are highly contagious but display no outward symptoms for several hours (perhaps a day), until a sudden death. It may be so sudden as to have people dropping in the street as they walk. They don't reanimate as zombies. No one gets superpowers.
  • Existing governments have effectively disintegrated due to the mass death toll. There was no time to move heads of state to secret bunkers or CDC containment labs or any such thing.

(Feel free to chime in if there are other assumptions I should be making here.)

So what happens? At the outset, people are dying en masse. Anything resembling a hospital would be completely overrun. Cities would be gridlocked. There would be widespread panic; most people aren't accustomed to dealing with death on such a massive scale. When people panic, they do stupid things. There would undoubtedly be rioting, looting, chaos; some would be donning "the end is near!" sandwich boards.

But what then? The pandemic has run its course, and life must go on.

Presumably infrastructure at this point has crumbled. There just aren't enough living bodies left to operate power plants, water utilities or waste management facilities, much less shipping and distribution centers, server farms, or any of the thousands of other cogs in the machine of our modern infrastructure. The power has gone out and the plumbing is useless. The internet no longer exists.

This is where fiction usually picks up, with people filling backpacks with canned goods and banding together to fight off roving marauders. But that kind of world can't last forever; there are only so many cans of beans or fruit and so many bottles of water.

Eventually someone has to attempt to clean up the aftermath, the debris. There would be bodies everywhere – over five billion people worldwide. They can't all just be left to decay. Would someone organize a cleanup operation? What about whatever's left of food, water, fuel? There are millions of cars left blocking the roads, most of which still have fuel in them that could be used.

Would anyone try to resuscitate the utilities to get water flowing, get some electricity? There must be a few engineers left in the world. How much knowledge has been lost? We could enter a new Stone Age, or revert back to some kind of agricultural society, or maybe fiction becomes reality and we all just wander through a desolate landscape until we all die.

I don't have any good answers. Maybe there aren't any good answers. In any case, the concept fascinates me, and I wanted to start a discussion around it as a thought experiment. What would happen?

10 thoughts on “What would life be like immediately after a pandemic?

  1. What time of year would this take place? The time of year will drastically affect how people are able to respond.
    Also, I’d alter your scenario from instant death to long (unnoticeable), and extremely contagious incubation period followed by near-instant death. (Ebola zaire has the near-instant death and it’s ultimately not that contagious because it’s too fast.)

  2. Good point. I’ve amended my original statement to reflect a longer period of contagion before death — that’s what I’d mostly pictured, but didn’t express well.

    Let’s say this takes place mid-Spring in the US, so late April to early May timeframe. Obviously weather conditions will vary around the globe. I have to imagine the cleanup would take months or years after the fact regardless of current season.

  3. Realistically, the hospitals would get overrun. So with something highly contagious, medical professionals are probably among the first the 75% of the population to die. They’re not magically immune. So your new world population is most likely left with almost no doctors, nurses, interns… no one who can practice medicine. If the pandemic didn’t kill you, something else probably will. Teachers are probably gone, since they work with a high risk population. Anywhere where a large amount of people gather at once… so I guess cross yourself off the survivor list if you were at a college, airport, church…
    The fate of the new world is going to depend on what the survivors are capable of. Which is, sadly, realistically, probably not a whole lot. It’s probably going to be a lot of survivors aimlessly wandering the land, living off canned foods for as long as they can. I don’t think everyone will eventually die off. But we’ll probably regress as a species. I don’t think we’ll be able to rebuild to the type of civilization we have now. I’m sure we’ll eventually figure out like plumbing again, but it’ll probably be an adapt or die kind of life.

  4. @ Sarah – that’s kind of my question. Would we really end up just wandering around living off canned goods? Cities would be completely off limits due to the smell of death, and I don’t think most people can handle an indefinite camping trip. (Unless you’re fortunate enough to stumble across Hershel’s farm, in which case you need to keep an eye on Carl.)

  5. Yes. I think we would really end up wandering around. Eventually people would wander around to the same place and form little communities and learn how to plant carrots and raise chickens and sing around campfires and figure out which herbs fix which ailments. Cities won’t smell like death forever, but no one will care about them at that point, and they won’t be habitable anyway.

    If you want a quick, entertaining read, try “Ariel” and “Elegy Beach” in that order. No pandemic or anything, but pretty much the world as we know it ended overnight in the first book, and in the second book it’s the next generation of kids and how they live off the land and love it, while their parents talk about the good ol’ days of cell phones and iPods. There’s magic and unicorns.

    And you said there were no zombies, so I don’t really care what Carl’s doing. Not my problem.

  6. Post-apocalpse, I imagine (because of the 2nd Amendment) North American survivors would be at an advantage. Might makes right and armed individuals would dominate. Under this Darwinian scenario (dominate or perish) “religion” (defined as a code of ethics) would be irrelevant. Only after groups of individuals could band together to collectively protect their ecosystem, would some sense of normalcy renew “civilization”.

    1. With only 25% of us remaining, everyone could easily arm themselves and the 2nd Amendment would become purely academic. Unfortunately you could probably count on another 10% being wiped out by disease, violence and accidents so around 15% of the population would remain. With this dramatically reduced number of humans there would be plenty of food fuel and other resources to last for many generations.

  7. I wonder though. Depending on the statistics you look at, only about 40% or less of the US population owns a gun. Granted, that’s probably higher than other countries, but that’s still a lot of people that don’t have (or want) firearms.

    Now, if all hell breaks loose and it’s TEOTWAWKI, some people will probably have to change their minds on that. Dominate or perish, as you say.

    I also wonder how many people would decide they don’t want to survive the apocalypse and choose suicide rather than take on a life of hardship, foraging, etc.

  8. Under these starting conditions, I think people would wander about for a couple of months, perhaps a year, till they found a place they liked. Gasoline has a shelf life – it lasts roughly two years from the date of refinement, so if you want to roam after that, you’ll need a bicycle or a fuel source. I think people would probably wind up cohering around some source of electrical power and clean water, so think hydroelectric dams. Skip the nuclear power plants – I’m not a “No Nukes” kinda guy, but running one of those things takes a big base of knowledge to work from, on-the-job training doesn’t sound like a good idea, and the trained techs would probably be dead. Clean water is a big issue – bad water kills people every day, even now – but don’t worry too much about armed tyrants. Lots of space to flee into, lots of guns to resist with, because like Bill said, firearms will be available – they’re like potato chips for gun nuts. We don’t stop with just one, we have collections. And as for the cities, they’ll stink, sure – but not forever. Wait a year or so, stiffen that upper lip, and start some post-apoc prospecting.

  9. Without staff to monitor them the Nuclear Power plants are gonna go poof! I’d imagine people would need to get as far away from them as possible – but how many people would know that? That’s another whole load of people who will get wiped off the planet.

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