Welcome to the Zombie Apocalypse of “Living With Covid”

Kitanya Harrison
14 min readAug 12, 2022
Image by ayoub wardin from Pixabay

Much of the world is failing. It has always been so, in one way or another. Destruction lays many of the markers of history, as does mass death. We live in a time of plague. It is 2022. The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the world, and now monkeypox is spreading rapidly. This outcome is at odds with the hopes humanity had for the 21st century. We were meant to have cured cancer by now. Instead, vaccines — arguably humankind’s greatest medical advancement, and important tools in the fight against pandemics — have become suspicious at scale.

During the early 2000s, it was fascinating (if horrifying) to watch the parents of autistic children determinedly seek and find in vaccines a scapegoat they are unwilling to release in order to blame something for their children’s neurodivergence. Equally bizarre (but more expected) were the anti-Big Pharma conspiracy theories, framing inoculation against mass-death-bringing communicable diseases as part of the “Villain’s Toolkit for World Domination.” Vaccination isn’t risk-free — medication never is, and large pharmaceutical companies routinely place profits ahead of public health. Even so, while vaccine injury may occur in vanishingly rare cases, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, and, historically, there hasn’t been much profit in making vaccines (there is money in treating illness, not preventing it). What history does show us clearly is that failure to face pestilence with clarity, truth, and resoluteness is deadly on a mass scale.

There is a yawning gap between our optimistic turn-of-the-century hopes for the world and the precipitous collapse into the reality of an ever-uglier 2020s. Our attitudes towards plague and how to contain it reveal what was writhing in that chasm: a skillfully cultivated culture of self-centeredness that drives consumption — the engine of capitalism. Self-help, self-actualization, and self-improvement: These concepts gained popularity in the “Me Generation” 1970s and became entrenched in the “greed is good” 80s. Self. That’s what so many of us have been conditioned to obsess over and venerate. The presentation of that self with the goal of having it accepted and praised is vitally important, and it can’t be done without consuming the right products. Our whole lives are aspirational. Is that because it is a self-evident greater good, or is it because, if we pause, if we stop scaling that mountain, we’ll realize we don’t need the right jeans or sneakers or lipstick?

Illness and disability mar the fantasy of the perfect self we are meant to be striving for. That helps explain why the protections vaccines offer to literally billions of people were of scant concern to the individual need to displace the personal crisis that arose for some in the face of having a neurodivergent or disabled child. The urge to smash a life-saving infrastructure to bits was their response. Anti-vaxxers were only the igniting spark, though. Those aggrieved parents don’t own any newspapers or run any television networks. People who should have known better platformed their dangerous foolishness, took it mainstream, and normalized it. While vaccination levels remain relatively high, they are slackening enough to provide room for pathogens that were eliminated in the 20th century to reemerge.

Nothing is beyond interrogation, but when it comes to something as serious as curtailing deadly communicable diseases, making up your own facts, constructing an alternate reality and trying to gaslight everyone else into propping up your delusion should be a non-starter. Responsible people should refrain from amplifying unfounded fears. Many do not. The manner in which information is disseminated and debated has changed the way we discuss public health for the worse. The primacy of the individual, of the self, in contemporary storytelling is a large part of the problem.

In hindsight, it’s unsurprising that the myth of rugged individualism morphed into one of self-absorbed self-actualization that would undermine vaccination and other public health measures. This is a piece that accurately represents the whole. The (uncomfortable for some) truth is that there are some vitally important, life-and-death goals that can be accomplished only if an overwhelming majority of us all participate and take on some measure of risk. In these circumstances, the self is largely irrelevant outside of the context of the larger group. That is an existential threat to anyone who believes that “freedom” has meaning only when it is expressed through individuality.

We are each the protagonist in our own life, but we can’t be the protagonist in everyone else’s, especially not during a prolonged global public health crisis. Freedom as “main character syndrome” is an essential part of the language of modern storytelling, particularly advertising, and it’s settled deep into the nooks and crannies of all of our psyches. Each individual is important. That’s not the same as being the hero of the piece. Someone has to be the sidekick, the comic foil, the villain. Others make up part of the scenery.

The ill and the disabled are rarely heroes in our stories. I underestimated how much that bias would inform the way some people processed the reality of living during a plague and how it shapes the stories they tell themselves, as well as the role they play in the narrative. Good health is seen as a marker of good character. Eating right, exercising, temperance, etc. — these all mean a person is hardworking and disciplined and therefore deserving of health, which, in reality, is often determined by the luck of the draw. This fallacy can enmesh itself into a person’s identity so firmly that they delude themselves into believing they’re exempt from the consequences of infection. They’re the sort of people who would hide their zombie bite, not out of the fear of ostracism or meeting violence, but because it couldn’t possibly be happening to them. After all, they did everything right. If their infection were discovered, they might even go on a biting rampage to infect others, because, shouldn’t we all want to be like them?

Living during a pandemic has me thinking a lot about zombie stories, which use plague as allegory for myriad social ills, such as the careless but vicious vagaries of capitalism and crushing, all-consuming poverty. Any large-scale, gnawing social anxiety can be represented by the horde that cracks open victims’ skulls and eats their brains (the physical manifestation of our selves). These stories are about the unseen mechanisms that sculpt our thoughts, literally and figuratively and how we fear they’ll destroy us.

Early zombie stories drew heavily on Haitian folklore and spoke to enslaved Black Haitians’ fear of continuing to be captive to evil masters, even after death. The first movie in the zombie genre was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), whose Black hero survives the zombies’ attacks, only to be shot to death by white vigilantes. A plausible reality is more frightening and deadly than the allegory. The lens through which Night of the Living Dead views racism is eerily relevant in the 2020s. A Black man fighting his way through a violently racist society doesn’t get to write the ending of his own story. A white person holding a gun who identifies as the hero snuffs out his life and believes they should be celebrated for it.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. That horrible stagnation is there in the rotting flesh of the zombies, isn’t it? They have a purpose of sorts. They survive, but they do not live. It doesn’t necessarily make them more dangerous than those who do. A good zombie story will interrogate what constitutes true heroism.

The zombies themselves may sometimes be sympathetic (particularly if they’re a beloved character, who is bitten then turns), but they are almost never cast as fully formed characters (the television series iZombie and All of Us Are Dead are notable recent exceptions). Zombies nearly always form a mindless, devouring horde driven by a single impetus: to find and consume human brains. Every other impulse was extinguished the moment they turned. Their sentience is destroyed.

Like the viruses that infect, kill, then re-animate them, zombies are neither dead nor alive. They exist in a terrible place between humanity and the grave. The pandemic has put us all in a similar kind of limbo, where life and death hang in the balance. The necessary response to save as many of us as possible — getting vaccinated, keeping a safe physical distance from others, wearing masks, and maintaining properly ventilated spaces — is anticlimactic. There are no reanimated corpses to wrestle, no heads to cave in, no guns to shoot. The physical threat is microscopic. We can’t meet it face-to-face. This may be the reason some who cast themselves as the heroes of our current story present adhering to mitigation efforts like masking as “living in fear.” Storytelling requires conflict, and cooperation doesn’t play as well. Some people need something they can see to fight against, even if it’s the rest of us, who are just trying to survive.

It never occurred to me that so many people would vehemently resist something as simple as wearing a mask when lives are at stake. That was because I didn’t know enough about the history of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, during which antimaskers and other denialists also gummed up the works. History is repeating itself, including the insistent rejection of the scientific facts. The answers about what to do in an airborne disease pandemic and why to do it haven’t changed that much. Neither has the nature of the resistance to quelling the spread of the disease.

In a fascinating twist, the story of Covid-19 denialists assigns the role of the zombie horde to people who are committed to mitigating the spread of the disease. In this narrative, if you take the reality of all the illness and death seriously, you’re not really thinking for yourself. “Sheeple” (a kind of unthinking zombie) is the insult leveled at those who reject the dangerous fantasy that individual choices can stymie a rapidly spreading virus. The derisive moniker “group think” seeks to erase “we understand that we all need to act in concert to solve this problem of mass death.” This is a rejection of the notion of community, of society. Communicable diseases demonstrate how interconnected we all are. In a way, we are one body, one host for an amoral pathogen that is programmed to spread. We can’t bluster at it until it submits. We can’t pay it off. We can’t ghost it. We can’t plead with it for mercy. We can’t gaslight it. We have to tell the truth about it to survive it.

The fight to be free to inhale then spread the virus that causes Covid-19 isn’t only about ignorance. It is, in part, about power. Having to consider others puts one at risk of not only being told what to do but having to face up to lacking the qualifications to be the one doing the telling. Expertise comforts some and shames others. That’s part of what’s causing the divide. For those whom expertise shames, it is predictable that they would overcompensate to demonstrate their fealty to a vague “freedom” that elevates what they think and believe over what is true. The most interesting aspect of this particular brand of “individual liberty” is how vitally important performing it to an audience is. Sitting at home quietly and ordering your groceries online won’t suffice, not when you can head over to the supermarket unmasked to shout at and bully the staff, who are among the most at risk for death or disability from Covid-19. The same goes for abusing flight attendants and captive airline passengers. It’s not enough that these people don’t want to wear masks, though. Something about seeing others masking raises their ire. If this were really about personal freedom, why would they give a damn? They need the group they claim to scorn, if only to be seen and feel challenged by it. And so, since the start of the pandemic the “free thinkers” have been reliable Covid vectors — insisting on putting on their big weddings and going on vacation — unapologetic, reckless Typhoid Marys, a true zombie horde, spewing plague in their wake.

I’d never heard the phrase “superspreader event” before the pandemic. The images that stuck in my mind explaining the phrase were infographics from the early days of the pandemic showing how a single contagious person attending a large event caused a cascade of infections. It was like those moments in a zombie movie when suddenly we’re shown just how many of the creatures there are. Whole cities, countries even, are completely overrun. The lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic evoked images of a deserted London from the movie 28 Days Later (2002). These scenes all trace back to one person — a Patient Zero — who is never identified and quarantined quickly enough. Their feverish sweating is assumed to be something else — something manageable. It was like that with Covid-19.

Even as waves of death rolled over much of the world, as there weren’t enough ventilators to go around, we thought those who hadn’t been hospitalized were out of the woods and probably received some measure of immunity. Not only are they not immune from reinfection, but they are at risk for serious long-term effects, including neurological problems, often referred to as “Long Covid.” It turns out, our brains are being attacked literally. The vaccines that help prevent death from respiratory damage, etc. don’t prevent Long Covid. The only way to be sure to avoid it is never to contract the disease through those unsexy, non-silver bullet, cooperative mitigation efforts — masking, distancing, and ventilating. We had the knowledge to prevent so much death and suffering. Our leaders lacked the will.

I often think about those few months early in the pandemic, when the lockdowns ground human activity to a halt. Pollution cleared from the skies. Animals frolicked. The Earth literally began to heal. A clear choice presented itself to us, and it was rejected. The Economy had to be saved — not reimagined for a new reality but preserved as is to keep spinning out increasingly deleterious results. Capitalism. That’s the elephant in the room. It’s the bullet that can no longer be dodged. It’s what turned us into the zombie horde that is devouring ourselves and the planet. We can’t stop doing its bidding, even to save our very lives.

Stillness is anathema to capital. It not only halts production, it gives us time to imagine a different world — a better, more just one, where we do more than work to create profits that benefit only a few. That brief respite from the pressures of being “productive” during lockdowns made people question what they were working for, besides money needed to survive. People also began to question the way they worked. The ability to work from home — something disabled people had been pleading for for decades — became commonplace during the pandemic. Freed up from long commutes and toxic work cultures, workers are resisting the return to the office.

Who can work is also shifting. The Covid-19 pandemic is a mass disabling event. This isn’t discussed enough. What is to become of the people, who — seduced by misinformation — shrugged off the risk of “mild” infections that will circle back as Long Covid to coagulate their blood, compromise their immune systems, and damage their organs, including their brains? Long-term convalescence is likely a valid strategy to help them, but it didn’t merely fall out of favor in the 20th century — it is suppressed. Admitting the need to recuperate, not “pushing through it” to keep working and producing is inexcusable weakness that is ruthlessly punished. Not being able to kill yourself working means you can’t do “what’s right” and be rewarded for it. After a while, that means you deserve your poor health, because you didn’t do enough to remain “productive.” People who can’t keep capitalism moving, expanding and devouring are disposable. Nobody wants to be thrown away, so they “fight” to maintain their place in society and often exacerbate their medical problems. Debilitating exhaustion is the result. By contrast, shambling along, the undead never tire. They abjure rest. That’s part of what makes them no longer human. (There is much to say about how “hustle” culture dehumanizes that I’ll leave for another essay).

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelations 6:8

Death is here. It always has been, but we were made to look it squarely in the face again. Somewhat understandably, as soon they were given the chance, many who should know better turned away. They aren’t to blame. Navigating this crisis requires resolute, ethical leadership, which is in short supply. The missed lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic is clear in the “getting back to normal” messaging that emerged. The pandemic isn’t over. Everyone desperately wants it to be. That doesn’t make it true, though. A hodgepodge of local authorities doing the right thing, like reinstating mask mandates, isn’t enough. Relying on personal risk-assessments is dangerous folly. Getting to the other side of this requires well-planned, evidence-based, concerted group effort. Most average people are ill-informed on this point. The people disseminating the misleading information are not. They’ve made the calculation that the deaths can be absorbed and that we should move things along. There’s nothing to see here. We’re meant to look past the still-growing pile of corpses and back into the shop windows. In spite of rising inflation, we’re meant to keep consuming. Our leaders’ brains have been devoured by the illogic of late-stage capitalism, and they’re trying to have us meet the same fate. What part of “we can’t keep living like this” has the past few years not made clear?

We now live in an era of cascading, compounding disasters. The Covid-19 pandemic continues. Monkeypox has entered the chat. Measles has been peeking coyly out from behind the curtain for a few years. Polio has pried itself out of its cell. The Hell that follows with this Death is climate collapse, which is about to start rampaging properly. Future plagues may ravage a barren Thunderdome. The most infuriating thing about these unfolding catastrophes is that they were foreseeable and preventable.

Everything that is happening was predicted. Those 20th century stories about slow-moving zombie hordes got the pacing of the impending apocalypse exactly right. We saw what was coming in excruciating slow motion and still couldn’t get away, because the warnings went unheeded and the infection spread too far. We’re surrounded by the closing horror. It’s sped up and is now hurtling towards us, like the genre-shifting, sprinting zombies in 28 Days Later, riding waves of misleading or patently false “news” and viral social media posts that tell us facts are “alarmist” and we can get back to a normal that created this mess in the first place.

Welcome to the zombie apocalypse. In many countries, we’ve been abandoned to it. That’s what “learning to live with Covid” means. It’s what the half-hearted actions of the world’s leaders in the face of escalating climate emergencies means. Taking the swift, decisive, and drastic measures necessary to meaningfully curtail the unfolding death and destruction means some incredibly wealthy people will lose money and power. They’re willing to see an unconscionable number of us dead before they let that happen.

Humanity is at a crossroads. Staying the course and plowing straight into the iceberg we know is there shouldn’t even be an option. Yet, here we are, trapped, on a kamikaze mission we didn’t sign up for, not sure who next to us has been bitten and will turn. It’s not too late, but it soon will be. Whatever comes next — better or (more likely, at least for a while) worse — it’s the end of the world as we know it.

This essay inspired me to write a new collection with the working title Welcome to the Zombie Apocalypse: Notes on Collapse from the Covid-19 Pandemic. Members of my Patreon receive early access to new essays.

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Kitanya Harrison

Upcoming essay collection: WELCOME TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE: NOTES ON COLLAPSE FROM THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC | Rep: Deirdre Mullane