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.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.
@tomhenrich Housing costs would go down.— Carson Pierce (@carsonpierce) April 9, 2012
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?