Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
What would happen if zombies were real? This question is the basis of many horror movies, books and short stories, mine included. But what are some of the finer details regarding how the world would change if zombies arose? The real answer depends on the size of the crisis.
A Local Outbreak
A local outbreak of zombies arising would encompass a town, a single city or even a single lab.
If the government wanted to cover it up, this is the one situation where they could. If that happened, they could hide the existence of zombies while setting up monitoring worldwide for any similar outbreak. Here comes zombie screening in the name of public health checks for a dozen other diseases.
A single disaster may hit the news and even go viral. In this case, there would be worldwide attention and awareness - and plausible deniability. Call it mutated rabies, as happened in "World War Z", a weaponized prion virus or a dozen other conditions. Blame it on enemies foreign and domestic. Now you can bomb the heck out of the site to sterilize it before bombing one's enemies.
Or it is blamed on weapons research and used to demand everyone destroy their own weapons research projects.
This would be a terrifying scenario for those trapped inside, but it is the most easily survived by humanity. It is the few who escape while carrying the infection that pose the threat to us all, and the thin blue or green line shooting the infected that protects the rest of us. In this situation, we would have serious moral qualms over killing zombies because we don’t realize the full danger, and we’d have major public outcry if people thought we killed “innocents”, the potentially infected who might not have been.
After an event like this, the matter is handled through existing military or legal channels as a disease outbreak or terrorist attack.
You could even see the military or police who stopped the initial outbreak tried for crimes because the public thought they were killing the homeless, the mentally ill or the sick, not the undead.
The Regional Outbreak
This is a far more dangerous scenario than the local outbreak. It may be the result of a local outbreak that has spread into the surrounding city, and some of those fleeing this have spread it to the suburbs. The one child infected by the rogue pathogen was taken to a hospital, and patients leaving there for days have carried the slow burning infection to towns within a two hour drive. Hundreds to thousands are infected before the scope of the situation is realized, and tens of thousands to millions are at risk.
Nuking an entire region may work, though now the government is averse to doing so because of the numbers involved. The other reason this may not work is because there would be pockets that would be spared, whether old bomb shelters, sewers, fire-proof buildings with EMP resistant labs. In short, even nuking it from orbit still creates the risk you have to send in ground-pounders to mop up survivors - in an environment where it is now harder to tell the severely burned and ill human from a semi-burnt zombie.
A regional outbreak is also much harder to quarantine. You can block the major roads in and out, but people have an incentive to take trails, sewers, side roads and any other route out of the city for their safety.
Suppose the national armed forces are sent in to quarantine the entire area before working their way inward. They're killing zombies, quarantining the survivors on threat of death, and cleaning up any biohazards. In this situation, the fact that zombies exist will get out. You'll have some public outrage as suspected zombies who turn out to be human are killed, whether the mentally ill, the homeless, drug addicts or people ill with other disorders.
The regional disaster could trigger other nations to prepare for a zombie outbreak of their own. What could make matters worse for the region impacted would be an international boycott of that nation. How do you afford massive deployment and subsequent cleanup?
Society is forced to change in a number of ways. Mandatory health screenings can lead to dystopian totalitarian control. Active purges of the suspected zombies and populations blamed as vectors become logically tolerable, whether you're emptying prisons and mental health wards or sending illegal immigrants that already brought back leprosy and drug resistant TB to camps.
The secondary issue is the risk of lingering zombies. One gets trapped in a closet in an abandoned building and is found wandering months later. The murder victim who was infected and buried rises again after soil shifts. Someone with resistance but not immunity finally dies and turns. And society is aware of the existence of zombies. When new cases are found, are they treated as dangerous animals and put down, rounded up and studied because they no longer have human rights or placed in facilities in the hope they can be cured? This last case is the premise of the British show "In the Flesh". And in that case, they did find a cure.
You get a slew of complex legal cases. If someone is infected, hid it, then turned and infected others, can the heirs of the victim sue for murder or manslaughter because that person's negligence caused the death of the innocent victims? For the zombies still wandering around, are they to be declared dead before their families inherited? Is there a moral obligation to confirm that someone put-down was not murdered?
Only in this type of mid-level zombie apocalypse do people have common knowledge of zombies while being able to afford the luxury of worrying about the legal status of zombies and government response.
The Worldwide Disaster
In this circumstance, many of the legal issues are irrelevant in the face of the struggle for survival. Everyone knows there are zombies, and their legal status is irrelevant. Humans may not have much justice beyond the local elders, the dominant warlord or the ethics the small band decides to maintain.
In a worldwide disaster, you could have safe zones finding it acceptable and reasonable to shoot immigrants seeking shelter both to prevent the risk of contamination and prevent the lifeboat, their very ability to sustain their population, from being overwhelmed.
In a worldwide disaster, killing family members in a way to ensure they do not turn if they are at risk of becoming zombies becomes ethical. The death scenes in "Zombie Nation" are a good example of this concept; the dying person’s brains are destroyed so that they cannot rise as a zombie and attack the living. It is an act of compassion by saying I love you enough to prevent you from turning into one of those things and ensuring you don’t kill the people you spent a lifetime trying to save.
Hospitals, such as they are in this world, would systematically restrain all patients to prevent someone rising to attack medical staff if they died from a drug overdose or underlying health problem.
Survivors in this scenario would see mercy killings of the potentially infected as moral, because they lack resources to handle the risk barring a group holed up in a jail or asylum able to lock the infected in and wait and see.
The death penalty in this world might be letting them become a zombie, but realistically, it would be a death penalty that prevented them from becoming a potential predator even after death. Exile wouldn’t be used in most cases due to the risk of the malicious person returning with violent gangs to exact revenge.
© 2017 Tamara Wilhite