The last time I interviewed Max Brooks was February 5, long before most people had an inkling of what was to come. Brooks, author of the best-selling World War Z, disaster preparedness expert and advisor to the U.S. military, was tracking the spread of COVID-19 on his laptop on the kitchen counter of his Venice, California home, and was already prepared for a possible quarantine. He had stockpiled food and supplies, and he knew exactly which masks were best. I was keeping abreast of news about the virus, but I hadn’t begun to wrap my brain around what it might mean for our daily lives.
Brooks suggested I stock up as soon as I flew home to Washington, DC, but I was busy and never got around to it. So when the virus arrived and we were asked to shelter in place, I, like almost everyone else, had to scramble for necessary supplies. A few days ago, I called Brooks for a new dose of prescient advice. I definitely reached the right person. The writer, son of comedian Mel Brooks and the late actress Ann Bancroft, has been preparing his whole life for a crisis like this. And again, he is thinking light years ahead. What he has to say about what we as a country and as individuals should be doing to navigate this pandemic and avoid the next certainly woke me from my quarantine malaise. It will wake you up, too.
Is the virus as bad as you suspected?
The truth is, this virus has almost every single piece of the perfect puzzle for a slate-wiping plague. It’s got the asymptomatic incubation period of two weeks, so it can spread like wildfire before anybody notices. Its symptoms mirror established illnesses like the cold and flu so it can be misdiagnosed. It’s wildly contagious. The only thing missing is the death count.
It’s lethal enough.
Yes, but it’s not as lethal as CoV-2 (SARS) was.
Ebola is so lethal and unique that it rings its own alarm bells: If someone is crashing out from Ebola, that is a terrifying thing to see, and that woke us all up so much that we responded the way we should always respond to outbreaks. But this virus is just subtle enough for the idiots and the greedy to give aid and comfort to the enemy.
What do the next six months to a year look like to you?
I have absolutely no idea. Only an arrogant moron can predict the future with certain confidence. I think that more people will get sick and more people will die. I think if we try to rush to recreate life before this pandemic and abandon all the social distancing work that people have accomplished, the numbers will just skyrocket.
I suspect that some people will go back to work and find their jobs aren’t there anymore.
That is a problem that we had in the 2008 recession. We recovered but the recovery economy looked nothing like the economy before. We left a lot of people behind. They aged out, their skill sets were obsolete. They got really angry and fought back. And we’re all living in that backlash right now. So I wonder who’s going to be left behind by this because even if we do the right thing, even if we build a new pre-vaccine society, an interregnum civilization that is based on social distancing, we’re going to leave some people behind, and I worry about them. I worry about heartfelt, good intentions that might backfire if not handled correctly.
What do you mean by that?
Recently I’ve watched the media and even some politicians talk about how coronavirus is affecting black and brown communities in a much more harsh way. That’s a very important point. It brings up issues of poverty and vulnerability. I think the motive is good, but if not handled correctly, it may feed into the ignorant fire among certain white people thinking, well, that can’t happen to me. Similar to how in the beginning we made AIDS out to be a gay disease. I worry if we go too far focusing on this disproportionate effect, that it will give the deniers a get-out-of-jail-free card. We need to remind people that germs don’t care what color you are. We do need to fix our medical systems, but we have to be careful lest we abandon the basic truth that this is a threat to all of us.
You’re saying that there’s going to be an interregnum period because we’re highly unlikely to have a vaccine within the next six months. Then once we get a vaccine, we’re going to have to get it to everyone on earth.
What do you think this interregnum period would be like?
If we do it right, the interregnum period will consist of strengthening the gaps in our social distancing network. Logistics clearly took a huge hit. How many people thought they could order Amazon Fresh every night, and they got a message from Amazon saying “there’s no window to deliver due to the volume of calls.” Hopefully, our private sector will strengthen their logistics, and we will put more money into public health. Hopefully, we will try to reform our healthcare system so our hospitals don’t need to scramble for bed space, even if it is not profitable. Hopefully, we will take all this anger that we’ve been feeling about the lack of a federal response to demand a future federal response. And hopefully, we don’t blame everything on Donald Trump. And I mean that sincerely because as much as his incompetence is responsible for so many of these deaths, the institutional failures that led to so many deaths were there long before him. We talk about how Bush and Obama tried to warn us about a pandemic, but we still allowed congressional sequestration to gut the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We still allowed anti-vaxxers to speak out without a massive public pushback. We still allowed social media companies to allow completely unregulated ideas in regards to science.
So I worry that if we try to pin every single problem on Donald Trump and then vote him out, people will think that the problems will go with him. I saw that firsthand when Obama got elected, how everybody seemed to think that somehow we were magically living in a post-racial America, that somehow electing a cool black guy would erase 400 years of racism. I hope in this interregnum, we will take stock of all the failures big and small, and work to correct them. Because then when we get a vaccine, all the safeguards in place will protect us from the next plague for which there will be no vaccine.
I have two worries about a vaccine. Worry number one is that we rush it and we don’t do our due diligence when it comes to side effects. God forbid the first round of vaccines has some side effects that will give aid and comfort to the anti-vaxxer movement. Better we wait and make sure that this vaccine is flawless, or as flawless as science can possibly make it.
Another worry from a broader philosophical point of view is that we get a vaccine and we think, “Oh, happy days are here again. Let’s go back to normal.” There’s going to be another plague.
So what can people do now to prepare for this interregnum period of six months, a year, maybe longer?
When I say we should look at the gaps in our response, I mean that from the White House down to every household in America, everyone should say, “Okay, what did I get wrong this time around? And if I had to do it again, which I may very well have to do, what could I do better?” Because I made mistakes.
What kind of mistakes did you make?
I was stockpiling for disaster as opposed to a quality of life interruption. So what I mean is, when it came to something like food, I was thinking, “We can’t starve.” I was thinking, “All right, what do we need?” I basically put my earthquake kit on steroids. Now my earthquake kit is based on power going out, water not running, the idea of us eating simply to live.
I was not thinking that my wife might have other ideas. Perfect example: My wife says to me the day before the lockdown, “We don’t have any leafy greens in the house.” So I drove to the gardening store, and I bought three dozen leafy green seedlings and put them in the garden. Spinach, lettuce, chard. We’ve been living on them every day since. Put them right in the garden, watered them, it rained. I’ve been gardening every day. We’ve been living on leafy greens, fresh and beautiful, and it’s kept us away from the store.
Leafy greens are the one thing that you cannot disinfect completely. If you buy a bag of oranges, you can peel the peels. Or bananas. Even fruit, you can scrape in the kitchen. Even eggs; we bought eggs and we could wash the eggs, but you can’t wash a lettuce leaf thoroughly without it coming apart.
Now I am storing leafy green seeds for the next time. And I’m preparing to maybe cover a patch of garden to build a greenhouse for when the weather gets cold. So that’s one little thing that I’m doing.
Another thing is meat. We didn’t have any meat so I had to order it. I’ve got to get a bigger freezer and store a lot more. And it’s not just the meat itself. I’m okay eating anything. I’ll munch on army rations if I have to. But that’s my psychology. The quality of the food that my family eats directly affects their psychological well being. Understanding the psychology of everyone else in my household is very important, and I have to think about that next time around.
We have had similar conversations in my home.
So be thinking about what you really will need to eat well, not just going and buying every frozen thing that’s there. Frozen greens are not bad either. For many people they’re probably fine. Everybody likes different things. Also, what consumables am I using up faster than other consumables? We’re doing fine on the toilet paper, but I didn’t realize how many paper towels I use.
I also think about not putting off for tomorrow when it comes to things like doctor’s appointments. I would encourage everyone to, when it’s safe, do your checkups, make sure there’s nothing you’re ignoring. If you are on any medications, you’ve got to stockpile those too. And just little things. I haven’t been able to go for a teeth cleaning in a while, so I’ve been crazy about keeping my teeth brushed and white.
What do you think is going to happen when it’s colder again? Right now we’re so lucky, because this is all happening in spring.
Yes, it’s been a long time since Americans feared winter. I think it’s time to remember what our ancestors had to go through. What if the power goes out? Right now our services have held up really well. But what if next time they don’t? We need to really think about this. We’ve had a tiny alarm bell ringing with the meat-packing plants. But what if it’s worse next time?
We’ve also had little alarm bells ringing about tornadoes in parts of the country. And we had an earthquake here a week ago. It wasn’t bad, but we cannot assume that just because the universe gives us one crisis to handle, that it isn’t going to give us another one on top of it. So I would encourage everyone to stock up, not just for a quarantine, but for a genuine emergency. I would encourage everyone to overstock and over-prepare because the truth is, we don’t know how strained the system really was this time around. And if we get hit with a second wave, it might be worse.
I encourage everyone to use this time right now to prepare for another quarantine with perhaps the power going out for a time. I would encourage everyone to learn how to fix appliances in their home, to stock up not just on food and consumables but maybe on little spare parts, light bulbs, tools. Use this time to keep an eye on what you’re running low on and how to repair things.
So that’s what we can be doing. Here’s the big question. What should the government be doing?
Let’s start with the federal government.
How about the opposite of everything it’s doing now. Our federal government, by the way, has a plan. Our federal government has something called the National Response Framework. It is the master disaster plan for when things go wrong. And that could be pandemic, war, natural disaster, a terrorist setting off a nuke in an American city. It is completely comprehensive, right down to the tiniest little detail. It is updated constantly. And it is in accordance with American law. It is not only designed to save American lives and livelihoods, but it is also designed to protect the American system of freedom.
So when you heard President Trump saying, “Well, we don’t want to nationalize the response, because then we’d become like Venezuela”—nonsense. There’s been an army of constitutional lawyers who have worked on these disaster response plans to ensure that we do not become like Venezuela. I was an observer on one of these exercises in which I watched regular Army officers have very intense debates about how to legally use the American transportation network without stepping on the tiniest laws. They have spent countless hours and taxpayer dollars training for the day where an entire convoy of emergency supplies may have to stop at a stop sign. Or a four-star general may have to take orders from a county clerk. They’re ready for this. And it is a giant mystery why the National Response Framework has not been implemented.
Are other people asking this question?
Yes. I’m sure you’ve heard part of the National Response Framework includes the Defense Production Act. It is just one tiny aspect of this massive response, which we have had in place for decades. We could have been stockpiling masks, gloves, eye protection, ventilators, everything we needed. Everything that we’ve been scrambling for could have all been manufactured in that precious amount of time between China shutting down Wuhan and the virus coming to America.
So you’re saying that the federal government should go into this mode?
Yes. The federal government needs to go right now into emergency preparedness mode for the next wave, implement the National Response Framework, specifically the Defense Production Act, stockpile everything, which by the way, doesn’t go bad. It’s not rotting, it’s not like the lettuce in my garden. If we end up not needing all this equipment, then we can use it to help developing countries that can’t help themselves and stop the Chinese from helping them and save democracy in the developing world. Because let me tell you, there’s something rising from the East and that is the Chinese narrative that dictatorship is better in crisis.
And the developing world in Central Asia, Latin America, Africa, they’re going to need a lot of help, they need help right now. We can’t help them because we can’t even help ourselves. And if China gets in there with doctors and equipment and hope, then welcome to the Chinese century.
We don’t seem motivated to help at this point. So that’s the federal government; what can state and local governments be doing that the federal government isn’t doing?
States are doing all they can right now. The only thing they could be doing even more is just ensuring that the elections are safe, because what if this thing hits us in November? There’s a good chance of that; the weather is going to be cold, it’s going to come roaring back possibly. And then what do we do? Do we postpone the national election? I think that the states need to come together and ensure that their citizens can vote safely. And there are many ways to do it. It’s also polling places. Because if you have more polling places there will be fewer people at each and there will be less risk of spreading infection. Fewer polling places mean bigger crowds. Bigger crowds mean bigger chances of infection.
So how can we reopen without endangering people too much?
There are a few variables that we need. We need testing, massive redundant testing, whenever possible, whenever we want, and as often as possible. That’s number one. Number two, we need to figure out if antibodies guarantee immunity.
We don’t know that.
If you’ve already had it, what good is it if you go right back out and get infected? So that’s a huge question mark. And until that’s answered, I don’t see how we’re going to open things up.
I think another thing that we have to do, regardless of when it’s safe to come out of our holes, is we need to change our culture. You need to wear a mask in public. I see young hipsters walking around without masks. I support their right to get infected, but they don’t have the right to infect me or my dad. So I think that there needs to be a system of incentives that still leaves room for personal choice. You don’t have to wear a mask in public, but if you walk around without one, you are more than welcome to pay the fine. It’s the same reason we make seat belts mandatory. It’s the same reason that we make it illegal to drink and drive. People talk about, “my rights.” You have the right to drink alcohol if you’re over 21. You do not have the right to get behind the wheel of a car and endanger me and my family. If you want to get infected, that is your right. But you do not have the right to bring that infection to me.
Stores and restaurants have to be rethought too.
I personally think we should have health inspectors from the CDC the same way we have health inspectors for food in Los Angeles, and that gives me personal choice. So instead of forcing me to stay home, I can go out in public. And if I want to go to a movie, I see by the letter grade on the door of that movie theater that they have complied with CDC guidelines for social distancing in the same way that when I go to a restaurant and I see a letter grade in the window, I know that it’s safe to eat their food. So that way your businesses can open. But if you choose not to comply with health and hygiene, then I as a consumer need to know about that. You have a right to conduct business and I have a right to know what kind of business you’re conducting.
You’re not saying the businesses should open right now?
Oh, no. I’m saying when it happens, it does need to change the culture. It’s going to change everything, We have to have hand-washing stations. It may change the way office buildings are designed. Right now in the new ones, you can’t open the windows. It’s all recycled air, circulated throughout the building. That may have to change and not for COVID-19, but what about the next one? When we come out of our holes, when it’s safe to come out as a society, we have to think not just about the next wave, but about the next disease.
And it’s going to cost money, the same way fire escapes cost money and fire codes and marked exits, airbags, smoke alarms, crash tests. For the first half of the 20th century, we put in a lot of expensive safeguards that paid tremendous dividends in human lives. I don’t know when that became a bad thing.
As far as schools opening, this is a real clear and present danger and an incentive to have smaller classrooms and more teachers. Because from a public health standpoint, which is healthier, a classroom with 12 students or a classroom with 35? More teachers, more public health officials.
There’s a lot of potential growth industries.
There will be jobs aplenty—just different jobs.
How is this going to affect young people living through this period? We lived through AIDS, we saw what it did.
That’s a good point about AIDS because we changed our culture. AIDS came along at a time of free love, and AIDS proved once and for all that nothing is free, especially love. And we needed to change the culture. Free love became safe sex. It wasn’t fun, but we did it. I think there’s going to be a section of young people who are going to realize that they’re part of something bigger. Life isn’t just about them, and the consequences of their actions affect other people, and it’s time to grow up. I think that’s going to happen. I think you’re going to get a portion of millennials and post-millennials who are going to come out of this much stronger, more mature and infinitely more resilient than they thought possible. I think there’s going to be a portion that’s going to crater and still be stuck in the old days and desperately want to get back to the old ways. And there’s going to be a portion that’s just going to say, “whatever.”
Has your son asked you anything about the pandemic?
We talk about it every day.
How’s he doing?
He’s doing great. It’s tough, but he’s getting that his life is interrupted. And he’s not going to get to graduate. He worked really hard and he’s not going to get to graduate from middle school. He will be moving on, but there’s not going to be a ceremony, there’s not going to be that important milestone in his young life.
And I feel for him, but I also know that there are other teenagers right now who just lost their mother. My wife’s college friend just died, leaving behind two young kids. So while I’m sad for my son, it could be a hell of a lot worse. And he needs to understand that, too.
And also, as a young person, he’s changing his habits in the same way that I’m changing mine. No more wasting food. You take what you want, but you eat what you take. We don’t waste food anymore. Instead of just flopping on the couch to watch TV or play with his phone, it’s chore time. Take out the garbage, wash those dishes, unload the dishwasher. So he is a functioning member of this family with responsibilities now.
Good for him. Will warm weather make a difference to the spread of the virus?
Warm weather may help us only in that people won’t be clustered inside. But the idea that this virus is going to magically die off in the heat, if that were true, why is it in hot countries right now? We have to act on the science. There’s no substitute for the facts. So until we have the facts in hand, we can’t craft a safe society until we know what we’re dealing with. And that’s just the end of it.
Have you seen your dad?
We’ve been visiting my dad and talking to him through the windows. We haven’t been inside his house. The closest we came was talking to him through a screen door, seven or eight feet away.
I haven’t seen my father in months, but I spend a lot of time on FaceTime with him.
Like you said, you change, and we change the culture. We have a decontamination zone where packages come, I wipe down perishables, there are three pegs on our wall for our respective masks that we take when we walk the dog. We have metal knobs on our gates. So if a delivery person comes in and touches the knobs, I don’t wipe those down because I don’t want to waste precious wipes. So I blow torch them.
Same way when I cut boxes open with my knife, I hold the knife over the stove.
I’m not doing all those things. I’m trying to be careful, but compared to you, I’m not.
Well, who knows? That’s the point, we don’t know. I would love to get to the point where six months or a year from now when all the data finally get organized, I’ll realize: Oh my God; all that propane I wasted blow torching my gate.
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