As a prepper, you have plenty to prepare for. There are all kinds of threats to your safety, large and small, but small does not always mean less deadly. In fact, of all the threats that you could face one of the smallest just so happens to be the deadliest, and the hardest to defend against.
I am talking about germs, bacterial and viral threats. When a local germ outbreak slips the leash and spreads faster than anyone can hope to contain it, and jumps the borders between continents, you have a pandemic, historically one of the deadliest and most terrifying events that anyone could hope to live through. The death toll brought on by any pandemic will be enormous.
If the thought of trying to defend against something that you cannot see, smell or hear that can kill you as certainly as a bullet from a gun does not scare you, you are a braver man than I.
In this article we’ll be taking a look into the gruesome effects of a pandemic, and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from these infectious events.
What is a Pandemic Exactly?
How does a pandemic differ from an epidemic, plague and what else?
The proper definition of a pandemic is any rapidly transmitted outbreak of disease that crosses international boundaries. That means that this is no local flu bug you are dealing with. A pandemic by nature has the chops to infect rapidly and be transmitted to new hosts just as fast, meaning that it can propagate itself far and wide.
The disease, be it bacterial, viral or something else must be infectious to make the grade as a pandemic. Take cancer for instance. Cancer is a terrible and common killer, but not infectious. You cannot catch cancer from someone, and since it is not transmissible you could not call cancer a pandemic.
Now, something like the flu in various forms, or bacterial infections like plague, those make for pandemics! Both are nasty, can be lethal and are certainly transmissible. In practice this means that pandemics almost always hit populated areas the hardest, and will reap a terrible toll in lives or manpower when they reach urban areas.
Now, pandemics are not lethal by nature, but it just so happens that many of history’s most notorious pandemics were.
We cannot predict what the nature and symptoms of the next big pandemic will be. Major agencies and organizations like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization take great pains to keep an eye on upstart germs and outbreaks of any intensity to make sure they have a handle on them before and if they go “hot” and begin to head toward epidemic status.
It is not a happy thought, but no agency in the world has all the answers and all the keys to every door: there are many unknown germs out there, at least some that are so terrible they will defy belief, that are just waiting for their chance to hitch a ride in an unsuspecting host, borne right into the heart of human civilization…
Greatest Hits: History’s Worst Pandemics
I have good news and bad news. The good news is you don’t need to worry about some unknown uber-germ springing an ambush on humanity.
The bad news is there are already plenty of known and understood pathogens that have done just that, and we know how bad they gave it to us.
As you read the following sections, you may be shocked or horrified to learn how many lives were lost to illness alone. While today our medical technology and understanding of these “greatest hits” renders their threat greatly reduced, enough that you probably to not need to fear a resurgence, they all still exist, and in the case of viruses their proclivity to rapid mutation means the next nightmare strain that we have no defense against could be just around the corner.
The archetypal pandemic and proper plague known to most people is the Black Death, a bacterial killer that is thought to have been born by fleas that infested rats.
Brought to Europe from Asia in the mid 14th century thanks to merchants of the day hauling these hitchhiking rodents and their deadly cargo, it is estimated that upward of half of Europe died as a result of this killer germ, some 100+ million people, with some ghoulish estimates as high as 211 million.
The Black Death was no easy way to go, as most killer infections usually aren’t, but if you were one of the countless that contracted this contagion you could expect to suffer from swollen, pus-filled cysts on your neck, armpits and lower body, and this was accompanied by a high fever. Near the end, you’d start puking blood and then die. Terribly.
Another nasty bacterial pandemic was that caused by Cholera, which lays claim to title of most outbreaks through the years gone by, and still poses a threat today in many parts of the world, though it is thankfully rare in the U.S.
A serious outbreak will obliterate a population in no time since it is spread by way of contaminated food and water sources. One such outbreak hit Southeast Asia in the mid 19th century and killed over 1 ½ million people in less than 15 years.
Cholera is one hell of a nasty bug, inflicting awful diarrhea, cramping and vomiting on victims. The major issue with cholera is that it dehydrates its victims with shocking speed, and further depletes electrolyte levels dangerously.
Either can cause death and a host of other health issues. Good medical care combined with antibiotics can greatly reduce the mortality rate, but untreated you have about a 50-50 chance of dying from this bug.
One pandemic that has struck repeatedly through time is one you are probably already very acquainted with: the flu! But not just any flu strain, no sir, we are talking Spanish Flu, which in the early 20th century was ravaging the entire globe, resulting in 5% of the world’s population dying. The Spanish Flu pandemic is notoriously ranked as the worst medical catastrophe in history.
Whereas most flu strains are only likely to have a chance of killing the old, young or infirm (where it just makes healthy adults miserable) the Spanish Flu strain would easily kill a healthy adult. Its effects on victims were atypical for usual flu infections, and this often resulted in misdiagnoses that would turn out to be costly mistakes.
Before you’d be rid of the flu or shuffle off the mortal coil, you could look forward to such horrors as bleeding from mucous membranes and symptomatic pneumonia.
As mentioned earlier, viruses like the flu can mutate quickly with unpredictable results, and this could result in a frighteningly deadly germ appearing seemingly out of nowhere.
The most well known and modern pandemic that is currently underway is the one caused by HIV and the subsequent development of AIDS, and is currently wreaking its slow and insidious havoc across Africa and Southeast Asia.
Chances are you already know how HIV spreads: getting topped off with infected blood or sexual contact with someone that already has the virus. Infected needles are also problematic vectors in developing countries and among drug users. Over a million infected carriers are in the U.S.
For much of its incubation carriers do not know they are infected and will not display any outward sign of the lethal pathogen they carry. Once it progresses, symptoms will start off as cold or flu like and quickly progress to weight loss and fever. As the immune system fails, death is most often caused by a secondary infection. Life expectancy is about a decade once contracted, and there is no known cure.
All of the information in the following sections of this article is sourced from published guidelines and other information released by either the CDC or WHO. None of the following is homebrew advice, conjecture or scientific wild-haired guesses: when it comes to dealing with a threat that you cannot see or even detect before it is too late, you don’t mess around with cockamamie theories and hope-for-the-best plans.
Below are the stages of any pandemic, or potential pandemic as classed by the WHO. The WHO has outlined a planet-wide plan based on the behavior scope and scale of any outbreak.
This categorization is based on three phases, the interpandemic period (meaning before the onset), the pandemic alert period (meaning conditions are ripe for an outbreak and the threat is ascendant) and the pandemic period, which means exactly what it says- the pandemic is underway, the germs have broken international boundaries.
The following are all typed for the flu virus.
- Phase 1 – No new flu subtype detected in humans. A subtype that could infect humans may be present in animals, but the risk of cross-species infection is low.
- Phase 2 – No new flu subtype detected in humans, but a known subtype is circulating and identified in animals and does pose a threat to humans.
Pandemic Alert Period
- Phase 3 – New subtype has infected human(s) but there is no human-to-human transmission, or spread is very rare resulting from close contact.
- Phase 4 – Small outbreaks occur. Human transmission still limited, localized and virus is not very well adapted to humans.
- Phase 5 – Larger outbreaks occur, but are still localized. Subtype is adapting to humans, but is not yet at maximum transmissibility.
- Phase 6 – Pandemic. Subtype is highly transmissible to humans, and is propagating at a sustained and increasing rate.
Pandemic Protection: Defense against Germs
Every single germ is knowable only by the sickness it causes, outside of medical labs, of course. Germs are completely invisible, totally silent, and make no warning of their passage. Germs can move and multiply, host to host to host, with no warning, and the victims may not even show any symptoms until it is way too late.
Chances are you and everyone else who knows you are under threat from a pandemic will be properly paranoid. While you must remain calm and rational a little paranoia can sharpen you enough to keep you safe and free from taking any unnecessary risks.
You cannot deal with germs as you would a rampaging looter or a rabid animal. You won’t be able to scare germs away with a show of force. The only way to keep a germ from doing its deadly work is by adhering with religious devotion to sanitation, quarantine and hygiene protocols with iron-willed discipline.
Good “peacetime” protocols when it comes to food prep and personal cleanliness are all that is needed to stay safe in normal times, but when under threat of a real pandemic, you’ll need to kick things into high gear.
You must double your efforts and take absolutely no chances. You will never be able to protect, clean, sanitize and disinfect anything, including yourself, enough.
The following procedures are sourced from CDC guidelines with my thoughts following each.
Objective: Limit Spread of Germs; Preclude Infection
Mandate 1: Avoid Close Contact with Infected and Sick
The more contact you have with the sick and the more time you spend around them and their immediate surroundings the greater chances you have of contracting what they have.
Keep a goodly distance from sick people, and if you have to go near them or out into public under pandemic warning assume everything is contaminated.
Mandate 2: Keep Away from Others if YOU are Sick
Do not take the chance that others, especially those you care about, could become victims of contagion! Quarantine yourself away from uninfected people.
Mandate 3: Always Cover Mouth and Nose When Coughing/Sneezing.
If possible, utilize a cloth or strong tissue to catch any droplets of fluid flying out of your face which are major vectors for infection. The greater your effectiveness at stopping this, the better, as both are major causes in the spread of disease.
Mandate 4: Wash Your Hands Often!
Washing the hands removes germs before they make it onto vulnerable tissues on your body, or just to other surfaces, waiting for the next unfortunate and unknowing soul to pick them up.
Mandate 5: Do Not Touch Your Eyes, Nose or Mouth
This is very hard to do since it is such an automatic gesture but you must summon the discipline to see it done. All of these parts of your body are highly vulnerable to infection by germs.
Wiping the corner of an eye, scratching your nose or rubbing your lip is all it takes to contract the disease. Even when your hands are clean, leave your face alone.
Mandate 6: Practice Good Health Habits
There is more to staying healthy than avoiding germs. Eating right, getting enough physical activity, staying hydrated and getting enough rest are all essential to keep your body in tip-top condition and your immune system able to fight off any invaders.
No matter how deadly a bug might be, it will always have a much harder time killing someone who is healthy and in good shape.
Mandate 7: Regularly Disinfect Household Surfaces
Any surfaces used to prepare food or during usually hygiene rituals will need extra attention. Always be sure to use a cleaner with quantified antiseptic characteristics and use it according to manufacturer instructions.
That means if it says dilute or don’t dilute, do it. If you need to leave it on a surface for a certain amount of time in order for it to work, do it. Some germs are hardier than others, and you don’t need any surviving remnants hanging around.
Dealing with the Rest of Society
Pandemics are so dangerous and unpredictable for exactly the reason you are thinking of: germs are invisible, and until a victim goes symptomatic they have no signature at all.
Combine this with the high mobility afforded to everyday people in the modern world and human beings’ proclivity to run around all over the frickin’ place and you have a really scary situation, potentially.
Consider this: your town may be far, far away from the hot zone of a pandemic, but all it takes is one person carrying the germ to roll through town, stopping for a burger at a popular diner let’s say, and then your town will become the next hot zone.
Our Patient Zero left a trail of germs from the door handles to the booth and the bathroom and back. The waitress got it. Then the cook. And the cook is handling all that food…
You see where I am going, as ugly as it is. The rule of thumb is you must take precautions if a pandemic is underway anywhere in your region or country. Enact your preventative measures at once!
Any confirmed case of a lethal disease in your immediate area or in a neighboring town means the germ is effectively present, no matter what. Take that as your cue to sequester yourself and loved ones away at home if at all possible.
As with prepping for any other disaster or crisis, pre-planning and pre-stocking is key to survival. If you have enough in the way of provisions you and yours can stay bottled up nice and snug for as long as the pandemic lasts.
You will certainly need things like food, water and medicines, both prescriptions if needed and over-the-counter remedies, but pandemic-specific provisions should include disposable face masks, face shields, surgical gloves, smocks and bleach in case you need to risk contamination for any reason.
Heavy plastic sheeting and duct tape will allow you to create seals for doors and windows if needed and also airlocks for setting up quarantine rooms should a family or group member fall ill.
Take the time to greatly buff your supplies of all medicines, and also stock up on electrolyte replacement solutions or powders, and make sure you go easy on the sugar!
Since so many serious diseases feature diarrhea and vomiting as symptoms, you must be prepared to drink more than just water, as water alone will not save you from off-kilter electrolyte levels.
Have a talk ahead of time with all family members on the subject of quarantine care and how they should handle it. Sometimes hard decisions may need to be made to ensure no one else risks contracting the germ.
Your only threat may come from the germ itself, but it might not be the only thing you have to deal with. Second order effects like unrest and violence may result from societal strain since emergency personnel and law enforcement will be stretched thin due to their mission tempo and suffering from their own losses.
Isolated violence from opportunistic misanthropes or desperate people is possible, but widespread violence will likely be limited since everyone will have reason to fear infection.
All personal security procedures are still in play: you’ll need weapons, lights and plenty of practice. Fortification of your home and a bug in plan of a long-term pandemic situation aren’t bad ideas either. Emphasize ranged weapons like firearms and pepper spray to keep as much distance between yourself and an attacker as possible.
In the event that police or other emergency services are unable to respond to the incident, you must have a plan for dealing with any bodies left behind, either from the disease or from defensive force.
Either will remain a vector for the disease after death and will become its own biohazard as it decomposes.
Keep bleach, absorbent compound and thick gloves on hand for the task, and make sure you are suited and sealed to prevent infection while you handle the corpse.
Pandemics are a major threat, and historically have been among the deadliest events to occur on earth since history was recorded. Germs afford you no time to get ready, so your best defense against these silent killers is strict adherence to good sanitation protocols.
In the event that you have warning of a pandemic’s spread, you must act as quickly as possible and to enact proper procedures and prevent infection.