20 Oct 2014

Ebola apocalypse – and how US ‘preppers’ plan to survive

In Monrovia they get their Ebola information from makeshift chalkboards. In the US, survivalists are all over the internet, advising readers how to live through the forthcoming apocalypse.

First, let’s be clear. Ebola is spread when someone comes into direct contact – through broken skin or mucous membranes – with infected blood or body fluids. It’s also transmitted by contact with contaminated surfaces and objects, although the risk of transmission is low.

But Ebola is not an airborne infection – although droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze could in theory pass on the virus.

The World Health Organisation says previous outbreaks revealed no instances of airborne infection.

Limiting the spread

So far, so straightforward. The challenge for governments has been to inform the population and to implement a response that limits Ebola’s spread, given the huge number of human interactions that occur everywhere, particularly in densely populated areas.

And that challenge exists in the well-off United States, just as in poverty-stricken Liberia or Sierra Leone.

In Monrovia, some get their Ebola updates from ad hoc sources like the Daily Talk, a chalkboard “newspaper” (see image below) that keeps an unscientific score of the government’s efforts to combat the virus.

In the US, by contrast, official statements on the outbreak from bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vie for the public’s attention with pronouncements by a huge body of “survivalist” opinion.

Ebola chalkboard in Monrovia, Liberia's capital (Reuters)

Apocalypse now

The United States is home to many things. Free enterprise, for example. So it’s perhaps not surprising, less than two weeks after Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person in this Ebola outbreak to die on US soil, to find Amazon’s US website advertising a book entitled “Ebola Survival Handbook: A Collection of Tips, Strategies, and Supply Lists from Some of the World’s Best Preparedness Professionals”.

Most people may not want to hear about how to bury the dead, but this is a very real scenario. Amazon customer comment

Of course, for the book to be practically relevant to American readers, Ebola would have to have gained a significant foothold in the United States – and so the authors are not afraid to anticipate a sort of pre-apocalypse scenario where “the worst Ebola epidemic in history” is spiralling out of control, where it may have mutated into an airborne virus, and where the challenge of containment extends across the US border and into Mexico.

Those who buy the book may already have bought into the survivalist – or “prepper” – philosophy, which anticipates and prepares for large-scale emergencies and disasters. Customer reviews on Amazon’s website include comments like “Most people may not want to hear about how to bury the dead, but this is a very real scenario that you may be faced with” and “These writers provided the information we need to deal with it if we find ourselves handling things no our own.”

Doomsday Preppers

But Amazon is by no means the only forum for survivalist views. There’s an American reality TV show called Doomsday Preppers, shown on the National Geographic Channel, which showcases the lives of survivalists as they await the end of civilisation.

There are also retail outlets such as Ready To Go Survival, which offers “practical, comprehensive, fully functional and ready to use emergency survival systems”.

Avoid public transportation or hop on a bike. Compulsive hand-washing is also recommended. Roman Zrazhevskiy, Ready To Go Survival

Roman Zrazhevskiy, who runs Ready To Go Survival, concedes the Ebola threat pales in comparison to the number of people who die from influenza ever year. But he says that because of its virulence, Ebola could become a major threat – and when that happens, people need to to adopt a common-sense approach.

“Avoid public transportation or hop on a bike,” he told Channel 4 News. “Exercise raises your immunity, but it will also help you to avoid being in close, confined spaces with people. Compulsive hand-washing is also recommended.”

Beyond that, Ready To Go recommends an EDC – an everday carry kit – of items people should have wherever they go, including goggles, a facemask and earplugs.

Police tape secured the Pentagon during an Ebola scare (Getty Images)

Police tape secures the Pentagon during an Ebola scare (Getty Images)

‘Social distancing’

And then there’s the predictably large number of US prepper websites. They offer, depending on your viewpoint, either balanced advice on how to combat a clear and present threat, or an over-blown and hysterical response to something that will almost certainly never happen.

The bar/social scene may become a death scene for some, so think about this as you lan a night out. Preparing For SHTF website

In an article entitled “Ebola is here: was there ever any doubt it would arrive?”, the Preparing For SHTF site (work the acronym out) advises readers: “The bar/social scene may become a death scene for some, so think about this as you plan a night out on the town, especially in places where you would expect international travellers.”.

Greywolf Survival offers a long assessment of the risks posed to US citizens by this Ebola outbreak. It stresses that the current threat is low – “I wouldn’t pack up the kids and head down to your underground buker to wait it out just yet.” But it advises readers to start practising “social distancing” if the situation deteriorates and cases appear in cities across the US.

YouTube vlogger Tom Lupshu (pictured below) tries to sell a more extreme position, that the US government “is planning on a complete takeover by using not only fear from Ebola but a new strain of influenza that will depopulate the United States as well as the entire world”. It’s classic conspiracy theory.

Tom Lupshu on YouTube

‘Quasi-religious mindset’

But why is the United States apparently full of people ready abandon their comforts and revert to a simpler, more basic lifestyle in the face of hypothetical disaster? David MacLeod, a psychologist with a special interest in disaster psychology, says it’s a US phenomenon.

“The Americans are among the most superstitious and religious people – the largest number of Christian fundamentalist believers anywhere,” he told Channel 4 News.

“There’s something in the US mindset that looks for these kinds of quasi-religious ideas. And the other thing about Americans is that they’re very suggestible.”

He also thinks that survivalists are prey to a certain kind of pessimism. “People of that mindset are very often, in ordinary terms, anxious. They may be superstitious.

“If they’re exposed to such (survivalist) beliefs, they’re prone to begin to look at the world very suspiciously. Then these sorts of myths are generated and become a belief system.”

It may be that, just as health workers in west Africa have to combat local supertitions as they fight to limit Ebola’s spread, so a different set of irrational fears and responses are at play among the citizens of the richest country in the world.