Pandemic. Plague. Viral outbreak, coronavirus or Ebola—no matter what you call them some of the most dangerous threats to life, liberty and society and are also the hardest to detect.
Invisible, sometimes incubating for weeks, new and deadly diseases can crop up practically anywhere, often in the worst-equipped countries and regions. They can silently cross borders and take a deadly toll, costing billions of dollars and affecting millions of lives in a way that no other cataclysm can match.
Natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes are at least predictable. Wars can devastate entire countries, but they’re often years in the making. A viral outbreak is far harder to predict, even though we’ve seen how devastating they can be.
Ebola is probably the first deadly virus that comes to mind for most Americans. First appearing in 1976 in Africa, Ebola is tremendously deadly with a mortality rate of 25-90%. The largest Ebola outbreak spanned 2013 to 2016 and claimed 11,323 lives.
Curiously, the rapid incubation and high mortality rate of Ebola actually work to limit outbreaks—though they continue to occur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it’s been declared a world health emergency.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (or SARS) was one of the most recent viral outbreaks, cropping up in China and quickly spreading around the world. Limited by its means of transmission, SARS only infected 8,000 people before it was contained.
Meanwhile, 2020’s coronavirus (dubbed COVID-19) has infected up to 15,152 people in a single day.
Part of the reason for the spread of this coronavirus—and the challenge in containing it—is how much China and the world have transformed since the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004.
Population is soaring and prosperity is booming, so people are traveling more than ever. New development and exploration are forcing people into closer contact with the animals that often spread these diseases. Over time, the risk factors for a worldwide pandemic are becoming more and more aggravated.
However, the threat of a new epidemic is ever present yet very much out of sight, out of mind for most of us in our daily lives. Moreover, the rate of pandemics and viral outbreaks seems to be increasing in the 21st Century.
That means that when we finally realize that we should start preparing to protect ourselves from a pandemic, it’s already too late.
We’ve already seen this happen with coronavirus in early 2020. Respirator masks sold out instantly, becoming practically non-existent in the Chinese regions that needed protection the most. Under quarantine, China’s most affected areas were forced into isolation and left to hope for the best as the virus spread.
But how do you prepare for an outbreak that hasn’t even happened? What kind of mindset and supplies do you need to survive a 21st century plague?
We’ve written this guide to answer precisely those questions.
We’re going to take a deeper look at the established science, the risk factors and the realities of dealing with highly infectious diseases. We’re going to evaluate past plagues and pandemics to learn as much as we can from them. Then, we’ll give you the tools you need to keep yourself, your family and even your friends safe from a potentially cataclysmic pandemic.
So, let’s get started…
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Doomed to repeat history?
Anatomy of a 21st century pandemic
A mindset for survival
Preparing for pandemic
Conclusion: Don’t be a boiling frog
Doomed to Repeat History?
Most schoolchildren know about the bubonic plague of the middle ages: how rats spread the disease through streets and towns, eventually killing almost a third of the population of Europe and taking a massive toll on history.
What many people don’t realize is that bubonic plague remained a threat in some countries until as recently as the 1950s, claiming 10 million lives in India alone, even striking Brisbane Australia (pictured below). It’s a frightening thought, but even after more than 500 years, many of the same sanitation problems existed in poorer countries, resulting in a health catastrophe that rocked the world for over a century.
In the same fashion, there’s something to learn from practically every viral outbreak of the last century. Let’s look at a few to get some perspective on where we’ve been—and where things might be headed.
Pandemic Case Study 1The Spanish Flu
The single deadliest pandemic of the modern era, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was the Spanish flu of 1918-1920.
Spreading like wildfire, the Spanish flu was actually an H1N1 virus like the swine flu outbreak of 2009. It infected almost a third of the world’s population and killed 50-100 million people, between 3-6% of the world’s population at that time. By today’s numbers, that would be 225-450 million fatalities.
Unlike typical influenza outbreaks that hit the very old and very young the hardest, Spanish flu killed indiscriminately regardless of age or physical constitution.
There’s not enough data to identify the origin of Spanish flu with certainty, but it’s important to put the outbreak in context. It was 1918, the last days of World War I, with men and resources crisscrossing the planet.
Malnourishment was common, poor hygiene was rampant, and medical camps were quickly overrun with the sick and dying.
Today’s medical system is vastly better equipped to treat the sick, quarantine dangerous areas and limit travel. But we’re also living in a world with more than triple the population and a highly interconnected economy that would be devastated by prolonged quarantines.
Another interesting aspect of the Spanish flu is how the outbreak was handled. Instead of educating the public on containment and isolation, most governments censored news of the outbreak to preserve wartime morale.
Since Spain was neutral and had no interest in censorship, they publicized the epidemic freely—which earned it the nickname “Spanish flu.” It’s a side story to a devastating tragedy, but also a reminder that your government may not have your best interest in mind even when millions of lives are on the line.
Pandemic Case Study 2The Third Plague
In comparison to the Spanish flu, the third plague seems relatively small. But with a death toll of 12 million over the course of a century, it still had a devastating effect on certain parts of the world.
And it’s also instructive of how plagues can begin.
Deadly and highly infectious viruses can live for centuries in relative isolation. The right hosts and the right conditions can be what’s called a “natural reservoir” for particular viruses and bacteria.
In the western Yunnan province of China, there’s one such natural reservoir for plague. In fact, it’s an ongoing threat today. In the years leading up to the third plague, this natural reservoir became less and less isolated.
Mining operations were set up in the province, and some 7 million Chinese moved to the area.
With increased traffic and population, it was only a matter of time before the plague was transmitted to humans. From there, it spread throughout China to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to India.
The result was absolutely devastating to India, which was still a British colony at the time. Even though a successful vaccine was developed by the turn of the century, it wasn’t enough to keep some 10 million Indians from perishing due to a lack of sufficient medical care, sanitation and treatment.
It’s a heart-wrenching story to be sure, and a deadly warning about staying prepared and practicing the correct procedures for containment, treatment and isolation.
Pandemic Case Study 3Smallpox
Smallpox typically isn’t recognized among the list of pandemics since it’s been an ongoing health threat for the vast majority of human history. In the 20th century alone, it’s estimated that smallpox killed 300 million people.
While the vaccine for smallpox was first developed in 1798, it wasn’t until 1967 that the World Health Organization (WHO) stepped up its efforts to completely eradicate the disease from the face of the Earth. It was officially eradicated in 1980.
For those who aren’t familiar, smallpox is a virus that spreads by touch and starts showing symptoms after 1-3 weeks, with the disease running its full course over roughly a month. Symptoms start out relatively minimal but rapidly escalate into painful bumps that leave scars, eventually leading to blindness for some and death for 30% of those afflicted.
Of course, with such a widespread disease there have been numerous episodic pandemics throughout history, spanning all the way back to Egyptian mummies buried in the 3rd century BCE.
As such, global eradication is a massive achievement—and it goes to show what global health authorities can accomplish when they’re set to a certain task.
Not Repeating but Rhyming
As you can see, no two pandemics are created equal, and no historical pandemic can ever be a perfect guide for what to expect in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, there’s something to learn from each of these cases and certain factors that seem to come up over and over again. So, it’s safe to say that while history isn’t repeating itself, certain aspects are definitely rhyming/recurring from one outbreak to the next.
Access to proper medical care and supplies, support from authorities and proper sanitation—these might seem like obvious considerations today, but that’s not the case in every country.
Especially in the case of a protracted disaster and especially in poorer countries, medical supplies will be in high demand. That means shortages could become a way of life.
It’s also worth considering the unreliable part that governments have played in each of these outbreaks. In the case of smallpox, governments played an instrumental role in eradicating the disease. But in the case of Spanish flu, governments actually stifled information because it didn’t suit their war-related aims.
Fortunately, the world is much better-equipped and prepared to deal with a major pandemic today.But there are still some serious limitations in terms of systemic preparation and response.
Anatomy of a 21st Century Pandemic
What would a full-blown 21st century pandemic look like?
Between 2011 and 2018 alone, the WHO tracked a whopping 1,483 localized epidemics worldwide, including SARS and Ebola.
These epidemics take a massive toll on local economies, with the Ebola outbreak alone said to have cost some $53 billion in terms of lost productivity and social costs. SARS cost the world some $40 billion, and the 2009 swine flu epidemic cost the world $50 billion.
It’s estimated that a massive pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Spanish flu would cost a jaw-dropping $3 trillion giving wealthier nations the upper hand when it comes to long-term survivability.
Plague of the future5 Reasons Why Pandemic Risk is Increasing
Soaring populations and urbanizationmore than doubled the world’s population and tripled the number of mega-cities (population of 10 million or higher) since 1990.
Encroaching on new habitats, as with the third plague mentioned above, growing populations seek new places to live and inadvertently cross paths with infected wildlife and rodents.
Climate change also plays a factor, from increased flooding to the gradual migration of mosquitoes that will expose half a billion more people to insect-borne diseases by 2050.
Massive global travel, with over 1.2 billion trips logged in 2015 alone (a number that has since grown), has already played a role in the SARS epidemic.
The lack of doctors and nurses in high-risk areas is a reality as well. Even though poorer countries are sending more of their own off to medical schools, those doctors and nurses are often leaving for better prospects abroad—which leaves hotspots in African countries and India at yet another distinct disadvantage.
We’ve already started to see the financial costs of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, with extended factory closures throughout China as quarantines and containment take priority over everyday business.
As long as the outbreak remains localized, response will be swift, well-funded and well-executed. But any widespread health emergency can rapidly start straining resources—and patience.
Slowed economic activity will make it harder to keep stores stocked and harder to get life-saving medical supplies to the people who need them the most.
There’s an old saying, coined by Alfred Louis in 1906, that “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” That is, once an outbreak puts sufficient strain on the fabric of society, people will start acting out.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all. The stress of the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak drove countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone to the brink of collapse. Many experts agree that the breakdown of society poses a much more dangerous threat than any disease.
So, what is the world actually doing to prepare for a potential pandemic?
Authorities are acutely aware of these threats, but there’s also a consensus among health professionals that we’re not doing enough to prepare ourselves for the next major outbreak.
As far back as 1996, the Clinton administration sounded the alarm with a report that said “emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS present one of the most significant health and security challenges facing the global community.”
Another more recent report from the WHO puts it plainly,
The world is not prepared.
The report goes on to detail how national governments focus on response to threats after they arise but fail to take the necessary proactive measures to minimize the risk of future threats.
other WHO report on the west African Ebola outbreak illustrates this point perfectly.
The report details how “the response in the first weeks of August,” when cases were first observed, “was the fastest, best equipped, and best-funded in the history of Ebola outbreak response.”
But the response still failed to contain the outbreak.
Because despite aid from international organizations and a targeted response, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had a health system that was in shambles. They simply weren’t equipped to follow through on containment efforts, and the outbreak went on for years.
Why should you, as someone in Australia, the US or the UK, be concerned about healthcare in west Africa? For the same reason you should worry about your neighbor’s house burning down—because yours could very well be next.
And while you may not be able to transform how world governments deal with viral threats, you can start making some preparations at the household level.
A Mindset for Survival
When preparing for the unexpected, most people tend to focus first on the actual materials instead of the mindset and education that are necessary to get the most out of your preparation.
For example, when it comes to preparing for an outbreak, someone might start by stocking up on surgical masks. But with a few minutes of education, you’d know that low-cost surgical masks are ineffective against many viruses and diseases. And in some cases, they can actually lead you to touch your face more than you would otherwise—which increases your risk of infection.
So instead of starting with extreme preparation, you should start with what’s called “non-pharmaceutical intervention.” Non-pharmaceutical intervention can be as simple as washing your hands more often, covering your mouth when you cough or staying in when the flu’s making the rounds. But the term also covers quarantine efforts like the closure of schools and workplaces—and anything else that doesn’t involve intervention through drugs or medical equipment.
Practical non-pharmaceutical interventions that we can all practice include maintaining good hygiene habits, stocking up on supplies and keeping a few spare sick days available at work.
These things might seem trivial in the face of a global pandemic, but you never know what will make the difference. It’s also important to respect the role of the Superspreader in the event of a pandemic.
Superspreaders are infected individuals who—by way of travel or exposure—infect an abnormally high number of people. By staying isolated, especially if you’ve been infected, you reduce your risk of infecting others. That’s why it’s crucial to limit your travel and your exposure to others who’ve recently traveled.
Remember, you may be sick without even knowing it. The incubation period is roughly 24 days for a virus like the new COVID-19 coronavirus, so you could potentially be infected and traveling for weeks before showing symptoms.
Third, as mentioned above, you need to expect the unexpected when it comes to society’s response to a full-blown health crisis or pandemic. Looting, violent crime and other acts of desperation will become far more frequent in the absence of increased police/military presence.
That means that you’ll want to maintain a low profile and steer clear of areas with high population concentrations. Have a practical plan for self-defense if at all possible.
Finally, once it comes time to stock up on supplies for a potential pandemic, it’s crucial to remember that it’s already too late by the time most people start thinking about it.
This became immediately apparent following the coronavirus outbreak in China when respirators and masks became practically impossible to find anywhere in Asia. So, it’s absolutely critical to stock up on supplies before the risk of a particular pandemic is on the radar.
What kinds of supplies should you get?
Preparing for a Pandemic
Despite the unpredictable nature of a new epidemic and the unique threats it may pose, you can actually prepare for one using many of the same flexible supplies that would help you survive other disasters.
For starters, we always recommend stocking up on potable water and non-perishable foods. You’ll want at least a two-week supply of each, and the more the better. That’s because a new outbreak could involve weeks (if not months) of self-isolation while grocery store shelves stay empty and utility/water services may be spotty at best.
Of course, stockpiling food and water can also be highly useful in the event of a hurricane, snowstorm or even something as extreme as a nuclear event.
Other practical preparations include setting up an emergency box with useful supplies like a crank radio, first aid kit and flashlights. You could also put together bug-out bags with 72 hours of supplies, although evacuation is far less likely than quarantine in the event of an outbreak.
The most iconic part of preparing for a medical disaster is, of course, the respirator.
As mentioned above, it’s important to remember that not all masks are created equal. It all depends on the type of threat you’re dealing with and what kind of exposure you’re expecting.
For these reasons, we recommend settling for nothing less than P3/P100 protection like our PARTICLEMAX P3 Filters.
P3/P100 masks are tested to filter out 99.9999% of dust, aerosol and airborne pathogens. Currently this is the only level of protection advocated by the NHS for viral and bacterial control.
We also recommend taking that one step further with a full-face respirator that uses P3 cartridges, instead of the half-face mask you typically see. Full-face respirators can provide a true seal around the entire face, protecting the soft tissue of the eyes and ensuring the contagion doesn’t reach your face.
Many of these full-face respirators are also NIOSH-compliant, allowing them to be used professionally in the removal of toxic elements like a sbestos, so they’re a flexible purchase.
P3/P100 masks and filters can be a substantial investment, but they’ll be worth their weight in gold in the event of an outbreak.
It’s relatively affordable to take that protection even further with a full hazmat suit, ChemTape, gloves and boots. Once again, the right suit can provide protection against a wide variety of pathogens, toxic industrial chemicals and even some elements of nuclear fallout.
So, although some cheaper suits may get the job done, we like to recommend our own puncture-resistant HAZ-SUIT for its long-lasting shelf life and the flexible protection it provides. As always, Kappler ChemTape and trustworthy disposable gloves complete the ensemble.
When dealing with deadly pathogens, careful decontamination is absolutely crucial before removing your suit. So, stock up on practical cleaning supplies, disinfectant and bleach to ensure you're just as safe getting out of the suit as you were putting it on.
Conclusion: Don’t Be a Boiling Frog
There’s an old adage that if you take a frog and throw it in a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump out. But if you put the frog in a pot of room temperature water and slowly turn up the heat, he’ll boil alive.
Our world is rapidly evolving, and we’re constantly learning to deal with new challenges and opportunities. But the threat posed by global pandemic is something we should absolutely not overlook.
Even, and especially, as outbreaks have become more common over the last few decades, we should fight not to become desensitized to these kinds of things. Don’t let yourself become the boiling frog.
Because if just one of the almost 1,500 epidemics tracked by the WHO were to break loose, the results on modern society would be nothing short of devastating—and almost entirely for lack of much-needed preparation.
So, take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your family from a 21st century plague, and in doing so you could also help protect them from the next disaster.