'All Of This Panic Could Have Been Prevented': Author Max Brooks On COVID-19
Apocalyptic novelist Max Brooks is something of an expert on planning for pandemics and other disasters. The author, whose books include World War Z, Germ Warfare and the forthcoming Devolution, has toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has reviewed government response plans related to various emergency situations — all in the course of research.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Hello from my kitchen table, which is also our dining room table, which is also my desk, which is also now my recording studio. A new rule of physics I've learned is when you're staying home, a small home becomes even smaller.
You might not feel prepared for a pandemic, but my guest Max Brooks kind of is prepared. He's been writing about such things in his fiction and nonfiction, and that's led him to lecture at the U.S. Naval War College and to become a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He's also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He's famous for his zombie novels, which helped launch the zombie craze in contemporary pop culture, but those books are really disaster-planning books in the form of horror stories.
His bestseller "World War Z" is about a viral pandemic, but those who are infected become zombies. The book is based on extensive research, not about zombies but about pandemics. It's on Time magazine's list of 30 books and series to read while social distancing. Brooks partnered with the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense to produce the book "Germ Warfare: A Very Graphic History." His new book, which is scheduled to be published in May, is called "Devolution." It's about what happens when the Mt. Rainier volcano in Washington destroys the habitat of a group of Sasquatch - Bigfoot. These giant animals go looking for food and terrorize an idealistic community that's settled off the grid to be close to nature and help launch the Green Revolution. I actually make a brief appearance in the book interviewing one of the characters.
Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. We recorded our interview Monday. Max did a great video with his father about social distancing called "Don't Be A Spreader." In case you missed it, I'm going to play the audio. Here's the setup - Max is standing outside his father's home, looking through the glass door; they're waving at each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "DON'T BE A SPREADER")
MAX BROOKS: Hi. I'm Max Brooks. I'm 47 years old. This is my dad, Mel Brooks.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
MAX BROOKS: Hi, Dad. He's 93. If I get the coronavirus, I'll probably be OK. But if I give it to him, he could give it to Carl Reiner, who could give it to Dick Van Dyke, and before I know it, I've wiped out a whole generation of comedic legends. When it comes to coronavirus, I have to think about who I can infect, and so should you. So practice social distancing, avoid crowds, wash your hands, keep six feet away from people. And if you've got the option to stay home, just stay home. Do your part; don't be a spreader. Right, Dad?
MEL BROOKS: Right.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
MEL BROOKS: Go home.
MAX BROOKS: I'm going. I'm going.
MEL BROOKS: Go.
MAX BROOKS: Love you.
GROSS: Max Brooks, welcome to FRESH AIR. We're talking to each other from Skype. Let's hope the connection holds up (laughter). I love that video. I'm so glad you did it. How are you and your father and your wife and your son, I think - one son?
MAX BROOKS: Yes, one son who is turning 15 on the 30. And so we are scrambling to do maybe an online birthday party.
GROSS: So you've been planning for catastrophe as a novelist and as someone working with, you know, the military and think tanks and as an individual, and your books are kind of fictional manifestations of your own fears and your own impulse to overcome them by preparing for the worst. So how has all the research you've done for your books and for your lectures affected your level of preparedness and your sense of resilience, fear, panic?
MAX BROOKS: Strangely enough, my research has turned me from a recluse into the guy who knows a guy.
MAX BROOKS: All my research has to be 100% accurate. I try to model my writing on Tom Clancy. So in the course of writing "World War Z" and "Devolution," "Germ Warfare," "Harlem Hellfighters," I have come in contact with a vast network of experts that I can rely on for knowledge. And also, as I have found in the last few weeks, I've been connecting them with each other to - so we can all help each other get through this.
GROSS: You know, President Trump said nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion; nobody has ever seen anything like this before. But you've worked with people who were planning for something just like this. What are some of the things that we have been prepared for, through task forces and planning exercises, that you have not seen activated?
MAX BROOKS: Yes. I can tell you that the federal government has multiple layers of disaster preparedness who are always training, always planning, always preparing, regardless of how much their budget gets cut. I have toured the CDC, and I've seen all their plans. I have witnessed what was called a Vibrant Response. This is the homeland nuclear attack scenario, which was a coordination of FEMA, the Army, the National Guard, state and local officials, all working together in a massive war game to prepare us for a nuke. I have also witnessed what was called a Hurricane Rehearsal of Concept Drill, where not only did the same players come in but also bringing in our allies from Canada and Mexico.
So I have seen that we have countless dedicated professionals who think about this constantly. And they're ready to go, and they have not been activated.
GROSS: Why not? Like, who's supposed to activate them in a situation like this? How should that work?
MAX BROOKS: This all has to come from the federal government. This is why we have big government. Politically, you can argue about the role of big government in everyday society, but this is not everyday; this is an emergency. The entire reason that we have these networks is when the bells start ringing. And they have not been activated. I don't know. I'm not sitting in the White House. I don't know whether the president is being lied to, whether he is holding onto a political ideology. I honestly don't know. But there is no excuse not to mobilize the full forces of the federal government right now and to centralize the response.
GROSS: And I should mention here that we're recording this on Monday, and perhaps by the time this is broadcast, things will have changed and more will be activated. But at the very least, Max, you can say we've been slow to get started.
MAX BROOKS: I think that we have been disastrously slow and disorganized from Day 1. I think the notion that we were caught unaware of this pandemic is just an onion of layered lies. That is not true at all. We have been preparing for this since the 1918 influenza pandemic - no excuse. We saw what was happening in China. Incidentally, the Chinese crime - while they did not tell their own people about what was happening, they told the World Health Organization. The knowledge was out. We knew. We did not prepare. This is on us.
GROSS: How is it supposed to work? Like, judging from all the planning exercises you've witnessed and the meetings you've gone to, et cetera, et cetera, when there is a pandemic like we have now and we see it starting in another country, like China, and the pandemic in your book, "World War Z," starts in China, what are we supposed to be doing in the U.S. to mobilize, prepare and prevent the spread?
MAX BROOKS: What is supposed to happen is the federal government has to activate the Defense Production Act immediately. Now, what the Defense Production Act does is it allows the federal government to step in and aggressively force the private sector to produce what we need. And what is so critical in this is timing because you can't simply build factories from scratch. What you can do is identify a supply chain in order to make it work.
For example, if New York needs rubber gloves, New York cannot simply build rubber glove factories overnight. However, there might be a rubber glove factory in Ohio that could produce it, but they might not have the latex. So therefore the Defense Production Act allows the federal government to go to the condom factory in Missouri and say, listen - you have barrels of latex we need. We are requisitioning those. We are giving them to the rubber glove factory in Ohio, and then we are transporting the finished rubber gloves to New York. That's how it is supposed to work.
GROSS: That's a really good explanation. Now, I remember on Sunday, President Trump saying, well, you know, he didn't want to nationalize any of this because you could go to a company that knows nothing about making rubber gloves or whatever and, like, what sense would that make? But that's not the way it would work.
MAX BROOKS: No. No.
GROSS: And also, he was saying, like, what'd he say? Like, look at Venezuela. You don't want to nationalize industry. But we wouldn't be nationalizing all of industry, right? Like...
MAX BROOKS: Not at all.
GROSS: ...What you're describing isn't, like, nationalizing industry or nationalizing companies.
MAX BROOKS: No, President Trump is spinning some sort of tale about - I don't know - the federal government, black helicopters coming in and taking over factories. That's not how it works at all. What happens is the federal government has the network to identify where the production chain is and how to help the private sector work through this because the private sector doesn't know.
And as an example, I have a World War II rifle made by the Smith Corona typewriter company. Smith Corona worked with the federal government to then partner up with the Winchester company to then share resources and to share tools and talent to then produce the rifles that we needed. That's how it works. It's not some sort of KGB coming in and taking over everything; it is guidance and streamlining, and only the federal government has the experience to know how to do that.
GROSS: If we had put things into place earlier, how might the virus have looked different?
MAX BROOKS: What could have happened is we could all be looking back on the great overreaction of 2020. But the truth is, the way the government is supposed to work is that the private citizenry doesn't even know it's happening.
What could have happened when this virus exploded, even when Wuhan was locked down, is we could have put the word out, the government could have put the word out to ramp up emergency supplies, to get them ready and then have an information strategy in place so if, God forbid, the virus came here, we could have had a press conference, the president could have had a press conference and said, listen - this is not a hoax, but it's also not the end of the world. While you were all going about your daily life, we in the government were working to stockpile all the material that we need to keep this thing at bay. We have done it. We are ready. Here's what you need to do to help us.
GROSS: So that plan is already a plan. I mean, that's what we were supposed to do. That's what everybody had been planning for. It just wasn't done that way.
MAX BROOKS: There is something called the National Response Framework. And it is an open-source document you can print off the Internet. And it basically tells every sector of society what their role is in any disaster, be it a war, be it a pandemic, be it a natural disaster. But we have a network in place that we as taxpayers have been funding to get us ready for something just like this.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Max Brooks. His new novel that deals with disaster planning but, in typical Max Brooks form, the disaster is an attack of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and that book is called "Devolution." It's scheduled to be published in May. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Monday with Max Brooks, who writes fiction and nonfiction about disaster planning for crises such as pandemics. His bestselling novel "World War Z" is about a pandemic in which people who are infected become zombies. His new book "Devolution," which is scheduled for publication in May, is about an attack of Sasquatch, Bigfoot. He also lectures at the U.S. Naval War College and is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
I'm kind of finding it upsetting that we didn't do what we could have done. I'm wondering if you've spoken to a lot of people who've worked on planning for pandemics and are very upset or angry or frustrated that all the planning that they've done to prevent the situation that we're in now wasn't used, that it wasn't followed through on.
MAX BROOKS: Yes. Yes, I can tell you about the frustration and fear and, in one case, just outright rage that everything that the government has worked for, that all these systems have been put in place to prevent are not being used. I can tell you - I won't reveal their name, but I know one person who is working 24/7 to try and protect us, who is just waiting for the day where someone on that dais turns around and screams in the president's face and says, that is not true.
GROSS: Why do you think no one's turning around and saying that?
MAX BROOKS: Honestly, I think there is a tremendous amount of fear of this president. I think there is coddling. I think that there is an unforgivable amount of enabling. I don't think that this can solely be laid at the feet of President Trump; I think it's everyone who works with him who knows better and is not doing the right thing.
GROSS: What is your level of faith in Homeland Security, in FEMA, in Health and Human Services and all of the agencies that are supposed to be helping us now?
MAX BROOKS: Well, I've known these people for years, and I can tell you that the so-called deep state is an army of dedicated, apolitical professionals. I don't even know who they vote for. And I know many of them, and we've never discussed politics. What I can tell you is they get up every day, they work ridiculous hours for ridiculously low wages to do nothing than keep us safe, and they have been demonized for years as the enemy. And unfortunately, now it is very hard to turn that cultural ship around and suddenly see them as our saviors.
GROSS: What would you like to see the military do? What is the military trained to do in a pandemic like this?
MAX BROOKS: Well, I can tell you that the military has a vast transportation network here in the United States that is ready to go. We don't have to put truck drivers or private individuals at risks because the military is already trained to do this, and I've watched them do this. The military spent years working out the legal framework of how to transport goods from one place to another around this country because it's not like Afghanistan, where the army builds a road and then they own the road.
The Army has had to go through a tremendous amount of training and adaptation to work within state and local governments to make sure everything is done legally and safe, without infringing on our rights, and they have done this. The Army's logistics corps can deliver anything that we need anywhere in this country within a matter of hours or days.
GROSS: Has our military done things in other countries when there have been epidemics that they could be doing here now?
MAX BROOKS: Yes. We did this in West Africa. We did a massive military lift of supplies and personnel to Africa, to the point now that I've spoken to soldiers who had been on the ground in West Africa, and they said we did such a good job of saving people's lives that we have bought ourself a generation of goodwill in Africa. And this is the tragedy of what's happening with Ebola. There were things the military is good at and things they need work on, little things like counterinsurgency, villages dealing with locals on the ground - the military still needs help with that and training and cultural awareness.
But when it comes to sheer massive might, getting stuff done, getting stuff produced and getting stuff moved from point A to point B, there is no greater organ in the world than the United States military. We did it in World War II. We've done it all over the world. We can do this now. This is the thing the military is good at, and we need to let them do that.
GROSS: Now, I want to mention again to our listeners that we're recording this on Monday, and by the time you're hearing this, things might have changed. We might be doing more; our government might be doing more. But this is a cautionary tale, one way or another, about things we could have done up until this point that we neglected to do. Is that how you would describe it, Max?
MAX BROOKS: Yes. Yes. I think that one of the biggest problems we're facing now is panic. You see it in the stock market. You see it in panic buying. All of this panic could have been prevented if the federal government had done what it was supposed to do before the crisis became a crisis because the way to stop panic is with knowledge. And if the president had been working since January to get the organs of government ready for this, we as citizens could have been calmed down, knowing that the people that we trust to protect us are doing that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Max Brooks. And his new novel, which is scheduled for publication in May, is called "Devolution." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Monday with Max Brooks, who writes fiction and nonfiction about disaster planning for crises, such as pandemics. His bestselling novel "World War Z" is about a pandemic in which people who are infected become zombies. His new book "Devolution," which is scheduled for publication in May, is about an attack of Sasquatch, Bigfoot. He also lectures at the U.S. Naval War College and is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
So your book "Germ Warfare: A Very Graphic History" was a graphic novel for which you partnered with the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. And this depicts various diseases and epidemics and biowarfare through decades and centuries, and it also projects possibilities for the future. So I'm wondering, having looked at the past and looking now at the present, do you think that the present, that the pandemic that we're living through now is revealing certain flaws in our social structure? And I'm thinking initially, of course, of things like prison overcrowding. How are prisoners expect to survive this?
MAX BROOKS: I think there are massive gaps in our systems that are being exposed right now, which - by the way - this is not news to the experts. Anybody who works in these fields could have told you years ago that we were vulnerable to this. It's going to rip through our prisons. It's going to rip through our homeless population. God willing it doesn't rip through our nursing homes.
But what no one is talking about, what terrifies me, what keeps me up at night are the secondary casualties that will occur because of hospital overflow. What I mean is we're only talking about now how many people are going to die if the coronavirus really rips through our country; what is not being talked about enough or what needs to be talked about are the people who are still going to die of cancer, of accidents, of other diseases because they simply can't get into the hospitals because the hospitals are choked with coronavirus patients.
GROSS: So that's a flaw in the system that you think is being revealed.
MAX BROOKS: That is a tremendous flaw in the system right now. And we used to be very good at this. I can tell you that one of the gut-wrenching moments I had years and years ago was during the homeland nuclear disaster scenario called Vibrant Response. And I spoke to someone from the Defense Logistics Agency. And what the DLA does is they're responsible for all the bottled water and bandages and everything that FEMA uses in a crisis - the military as well. They - if there's something out there that we need, that the government needs, they buy it.
What he told me was, up until the end of the Cold War, we had prepositioned stockpiles of emergency supplies all over the country, and that was in case we got nuked, so we could pull from these warehouses. Now, the peacetime dividend was, even though we never got nuked, we still had hurricanes and floods and other disasters, and there they were, ready to go. After the Cold War, somebody got the idea that this was inefficient, it was expensive - get rid of them and buy what you need on Day 1 of a crisis from the big box stores.
Here's the problem - the big box stores don't have warehouses, either, because they know it's inefficient. So these huge stores need to turn over their stock every 24 hours. So what if you have a crisis at the very moment that these stores are reshelving. And I witnessed that firsthand during Superstorm Sandy. We're watching TV here on the West Coast about what's happening to New York. And my wife says to me, you know what? We've always talked about getting a generator. What if we have an earthquake while this is happening? Go get it now. I got in the car. I go to Home Depot - generators gone. FEMA had taken them all.
So we don't have stockpiling anymore on a national level. We're seeing on TV the stockpiles of masks right now that the federal government is distributing; that is nothing compared to what we used to have.
GROSS: I'm even thinking about things that we're supposed to have at home to protect ourselves. Hand sanitizer - OK, local distilleries are starting to make that now. Things like Lysol or Clorox wipes, you can't find them anyplace, at least not as we record this. Vinyl gloves or rubber gloves, those are really hard to find, too. So we're being told to protect ourselves with supplies we can't get access to.
MAX BROOKS: No. And this is the problem, is in this country, we used to have these stockpiles, and it was called civil defense because we knew when the bombs were dropped and the cities were nuked, that we would need all of this, and it was all the lessons of World War II. So if this pandemic, let's say, happened in 1965, there would be no shortages; it would be ready to go. But post-Cold War, it's all become about the bottom line. And that trickles down to us, like you said, the individual citizens.
I see panic buying in LA and I'm shocked because how does everyone in Los Angeles not already have an earthquake kit? Which, by the way, the earthquake kit is supposed to be much more extensive than a pandemic kit because, at least in a pandemic, the lights are on and the water is running. In an earthquake, you're camping out. So why are my fellow Angelenos caught so desperately unprepared?
GROSS: What's in your earthquake kit?
MAX BROOKS: I have emergency food. I have emergency water. I have - more important than water - a purification pump. So if I need to, I can drink out of a birdbath. I have little cans of Sterno so I can cook on, so I can boil water or I can prepare food. I have solar panels so I can charge my solar-powered flashlight. I have masks. I actually already had these masks, not for a pandemic but for the fires and for dust that would, no doubt, be in the air during an earthquake. So I pretty much have everything I would need to be able to survive for a few weeks.
GROSS: Have people thought you were a little, like, overdoing it and now think, like, God, he was so smart?
MAX BROOKS: Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely. I'm sure I got the same looks that Noah got when he was building the ark.
MAX BROOKS: But - and I kept trying to tell them, you know, I'm not a craze-o (ph) survivalist prepper. I'm not surrounding myself, you know, with assault rifles and ready to run into the wilderness and eat rat meat. This is just basic equipment that I would need - food and medicine and light and heat - in case there's an earthquake and I have to live on my front lawn with my family.
GROSS: We need to take another break here. So let's do that, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Max Brooks, and his new novel, which is scheduled for publication in May, is called "Devolution." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Monday with Max Brooks, who writes fiction and nonfiction about disaster planning for crises, such as pandemics. His bestselling novel "World War Z" is about a pandemic in which people who are infected become zombies. His new book "Devolution," which is scheduled for publication in May, is about an attack of Sasquatch, Bigfoot. He also lectures at the U.S. Naval War College and is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
Your 2006 novel "World War Z" was about a virus that becomes a pandemic. It starts in China and then travels around the world, including to the U.S. Of course, in this novel, when people become infected, they also become zombies; it turns them into zombies. And this has given me something to be grateful for.
MAX BROOKS: (Laughter).
GROSS: The coronavirus at least will not turn us into zombies. We will not be trying to eat each other or anything like that. But in your novel, the pandemic started in China, which foreshadowed what actually happened with the coronavirus. Why did you pick China to start the pandemic?
MAX BROOKS: Well, I didn't so much pick China as China picked itself because in order for my fictional zombie virus to get out of control, I needed three critical pieces of the puzzle.
And the first was a massive population, recently urbanized. Second, I needed a first-rate transportation network because it doesn't do any good if a virus starts to spread but can't get out of a village. That's one of the reasons the human race has been spared so many horrible African diseases because when a virus tends to crawl out of the jungle in Africa into a village, it can stay locked up in that village until the World Health Organization gets in. So you need those two pieces. But the third one - and this is the most important - you need a government willing to suppress the truth.
GROSS: So China did it again this time. At the beginning, it punished the doctor who was sounding the alarm about the virus and tried to silence other people.
MAX BROOKS: Yes. Yes. This - China did not tell its own people. It threatened the bell-ringing doctors. It allowed the virus to rip through the population. And it also allowed infected individuals to spread the virus all around the world. This is why I based "World War Z" in China because I was looking back at SARS. This is the exact pattern that happened with SARS.
And while we were busy praising them this time around, oohing and aahing (ph) over building these hospitals overnight, that to me is an example of failure, not success, because with a little bit of free journalism, you could have stopped this virus. If the Chinese had a free and open society, then COVID-19, or the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, would have ended up as a paragraph in an obscure medical journal.
GROSS: Do you think that in the U.S., we had our own version of silencing the truth?
MAX BROOKS: No. I think what we had is an American shame, as opposed to a Chinese shame. In China, every single death will be laid directly at the feet of the Chinese Communist Party. They have all the power; therefore they take all the responsibility. When we look back at this, we - all of us, individual citizens - are going to have to take a measure of personal responsibility because we are the government. If we don't like our leaders, we shouldn't have put them there.
And as much as we would love to blame this historically incompetent captain of our ship of state, we have allowed the ship to rust underneath us. It's not just President Trump's fault that institutions like the CDC have been defunded for years. It's not just President Trump's fault that we have allowed anti-vaxxers to spread misinformation throughout this country. It's not just President Trump's fault that we are continuing to build a society and support a tech world that is based on comfort and not on resilience. We as voters and we as taxpayers must accept our share of the blame.
GROSS: But it did take a while for the president to acknowledge that the virus was a real threat. On Fox News, there were people calling the virus a liberal hoax.
MAX BROOKS: Oh, yes. No, no, no, there is a massive amount of blame that will be laid at the feet of Donald Trump and his enablers. And when this is all over, when the dead are buried and the sick are healed, there will be a reckoning. But there were systemic issues way before Donald Trump. When Donald Trump was a carnival barker on a reality show, we as a people, as a nation, were dismantling the systems that were put in place to keep us safe. And we need to look at that damage because the one thing we don't want to do is assume that when Donald Trump goes away, that the problems will go with him.
GROSS: Have you looked at cultural factors that have affected how each country that has been hit by the virus has affected it - comparing, say, China and some European countries and the U.S.?
MAX BROOKS: Yes. Yes. I've looked at it extensively because that was the cultural model for "World War Z." When I wrote that zombie book, I wanted to see which countries would be in a better position to deal with the zombie plague, and what I found is cultures that already have a siege mentality tend to be better prepared for anything because they have a sense of vulnerability, and that sense of vulnerability filters down to their institutions and to their individual citizens. And you see this now with the coronavirus. South Korea lives on the brink of war every single day. South Korea is still technically at war. Therefore, they still believe in their institutions. And when they needed a nationwide effort, they did it. Taiwan lives under the cloud of being invaded by mainland China every day. It's why they have had a phenomenally low outbreak; the same thing with Israel. Israel is surrounded by enemies. So when they shut their borders, called up the reserves and put in place institutions to protect themselves, this was no different than a war footing.
So I'm seeing different countries that already are aware of their vulnerability, even Cuba, who are exporting doctors. However, the United States always gets sucker punched. They did in "World War Z" because they - we tend to throughout our history - Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, 9/11 and now this. Nobody gets sucker punched like the United States of America. However, what I have found about American history is that we're also one of the best countries to rebound. We are very good at reinventing ourselves and changing our habits in order to do the job that must be done.
GROSS: I know you're interested in how disasters change social behavior and whether it creates a sense of community and helpfulness or people get terrified of each other. And certainly in "World War Z," when people are getting turned into zombies by a virus, people get terrified of each other and of contagion from each other. So how are you seeing that play out so far now? How do you feel Americans are changing their social behavior?
MAX BROOKS: I am seeing the good and the bad. I think we've seen, definitely, some bad with a sense of denial. You see spring breakers all congregating together on beaches and in bars and cafes and probably hotel rooms after hours. And now they're all going home. And they're taking those - the infection back to their hometowns. I am - I have witnessed a horrible example of racism right here in southern California, where there was a petition - this was months ago - trying to close the Alhambra school district simply because it had a large population of Asian Americans. These people had nothing to do with China. They were not coming from China. All they had was their ethnicity. And that, to me, smacked of the Japanese Americans who were interned.
So I've seen some horrible things. But I've also seen some amazing things. I'm seeing people who are adapting their lifestyles. When there's a stay-at-home order, most people are staying at home. I'm seeing people trying to donate their time. I'm seeing, as you said, small distilleries trying to switch over to make hand sanitizer. I think that Americans are very good at doing the right thing once they are aware that the crisis is real.
GROSS: So in your novel, "World War Z," when the virus that spreads turns people into zombies, that plague happens during an American presidential election year. And I'm wondering if you've given a lot of thought to what might happen this year when it's time for the presidential election. Hopefully, the virus will have quieted down by then and we could have a normal election.
But we don't know what's going to happen. And I have no idea, like, what's supposed to happen in a situation like that. Certainly, we can't all be in a polling place with large crowds. Have you given a lot of thought to that? And what do you know about what our options might be?
MAX BROOKS: I can tell you that there are many options on the table right now. I can tell you that this is a very solvable problem because we have plenty of time to figure this out. One of the great things that we have working for us is that solving this problem doesn't need to depend on new technologies. We don't need to invent anything. We just need to change the systems and how we do it. And this may depend on, obviously, putting a lot more resources into the voting process.
It may be as simple as extending the voting times and even days and expanding the polling stations. So instead of having thousands of people cramming into one of the polling stations, you might even have to have them on every street corner. It does not matter. We may have to recruit an army of pollsters who are all safe and protected and well-covered with good PPEs - personal protective equipment. But this is all doable. You know, one thing we have to remember, especially in times of crisis, is that Americans can adapt to do things that would have been inconceivable a few years before.
GROSS: Let's take another break here, Max. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Max Brooks. And his new novel, "Devolution," will be published in May. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Monday with Max Brooks, who writes fiction and nonfiction about disaster planning for crises such as pandemics. His bestselling novel, "World War Z," is about a pandemic in which people who are infected become zombies. His new book, "Devolution," which is scheduled for publication in May, is about an attack of sasquatch, Bigfoot. He also lectures at the U.S. Naval War College and is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. So he's dealt with issues of disaster planning in fiction and in the real world.
You've written - and I think this is from "World War Z" - fear can be conquered, anxiety must be endured. So are you dealing with anxiety in addition to fear?
MAX BROOKS: Oh, well, always. I think my psychology is a little different than most people because, for me, studying crises helps me calm down...
GROSS: Why? Why does that help you calm down?
MAX BROOKS: Because, for me, anxiety comes from the fog of not knowing. How bad is this really? And I attribute that exact fog of anxiety to why our stock market - because the problem was people knew there was a crisis, but they didn't know how bad the crisis actually was. No one had the facts. So they looked to our president to tell them the truth. And instead, what they got was happy talk.
So when you have a public that knows there's a problem, but their leader says there is no problem, that creates a gap. Within that gap comes anxiety that then breeds panic. If on the first day of the crisis, if the president had said, listen, this is not a hoax. This is real. But it's not the end of the world. On a scale of one to 10, this is a 3.5. And we have to make sure it doesn't go to a 4.5, 5.5, up to a 10. This is where we are. And if we had been told something like that, then that would've helped calm us down.
GROSS: You wrote in an op-ed recently that panic is not preparation. Say more about that, please.
MAX BROOKS: Well, panic never helps. Panic implies that you lose your mind. And that in a war - even a war against a microscopic enemy - gives aid and comfort to the enemy. When you panic, you don't think rationally. And in times of crisis, rational thought is the greatest weapon you could possibly have.
So preparing, No. 1, means clearing your mind and thinking about what you have to do. It means making a list of what you need to buy, prioritizing what needs to come first, thinking about how you're going to take care of the people around you. That is preparing. Panicking is freaking out and getting in a fistfight in the grocery store over bottled water when you don't even need the water, when the tap is already running. That's panic.
GROSS: So, Max, any final thoughts you want to leave us with?
MAX BROOKS: I think right now we have to be so careful about who we listen to because panic can spread much faster than a virus. And I think in addition to social distancing, we have to practice good fact hygiene. What I mean is we have to be careful what we listen to, what we take in - just as if it were a virus - and we have to be careful, also, what we put back out as if we were spreading a virus. So we cannot pass along rumors. We cannot pass along misinformation. We must be critically careful not to scare people into doing irrational and dangerous things.
So we need to listen to experts - the CDC, Dr. Fauci, the World Health Organization, our local public health officials. These are the front line soldiers that are doing everything to keep us safe and are literally putting their lives on the line. These are the people we need to listen to. What we cannot listen to is random facts on the Internet, supposedly, things that people are passing along to us, conspiracy theories. And I'm very sorry to say this, but I think that everything our president says at this point must be fact-checked.
GROSS: Max Brooks, it has been great to talk with you. I so appreciate you joining us by Skype. I wish we could be joined in person. And I wish you and your family safety. And stay well. Thank you so much. I look forward to talking with you again.
MAX BROOKS: Thank you. Be safe. Be sane.
GROSS: Max Brooks is the author of several books, including the bestseller "World War Z." His new novel, "Devolution," is scheduled to be published in May. He's a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO IGLESIAS' "VALSETTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.