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As has been pointed out numerous times, zombie apocalypses of the classic zombie-bites-you-and-you-become-a-zombie are stupid and would never work in real life. Biting is a horribly inefficient method for a pathogen to spread, the infected are obvious and scary enough that you could easily lockdown any zone that screwed up badly enough to be taken over, and the undead are no match for a trained army in combat.

Common answers for how to change a zombie virus to let it realistically create an apocalyptic scenario generally revolve around making it stealthier or giving it a long incubation period. However, in those cases there is no real "game": the moment people realize what the virus can do, anyone infected will be treated like a potential zombie. Either infected areas will be quarantined and the threat will end, or, if the latency is long enough for it to infect most humans by the time people realize what it does, humanity has already lost before the war begins.

Besides, that kind of defeats the whole fun of zombies, where there is a conflict between the infected and the uninfected.

What I'm aiming for is a zombie virus that is close enough to classic zombies that they can still be called "zombies", but they can still potentially destroy civilization, not by force, but due to politics - however, if the leadership plays their cards right, the zombies will lose.*

Constraints:

  1. Location should not be a significant factor (i.e. "one country gets infected and others do not, now there is a war between infected and uninfected countries.") This diverges from the point of the story, which is more about the interactions between politicians, demographic groups, and the "viral" transmission of opinions rather than military-type strategy.

  2. Symptom onset should follow a normal distribution. What this means is that, while there can be an "average" incubation period, symptom development can happen at any point - there should not be a long latency where nobody develops a symptom, followed by a sudden spike where many people develop a symptom. Most real-life bacterial or viral illnesses work this way, though they differ tremendously in how long the average onset can take, whether the scale is in terms of days (as in flu or cold viruses), months (as with rabies) or years (as with HIV).

  3. Biting should be a major vector, but it doesn't have to be the only vector.

  4. The virus does not need to affect everyone the same way, and symptom development can be as complex as you like within the above constraints. It does not need to make 100% of infected become mindless and violent. It can have various interactions with genetic factors, lifestyles, drugs, etc. Have fun with this.

  5. However, everybody being infected SHOULD result in the collapse of civilization. This is a bad virus, not a skin condition that is blown out of proportion. (But some denialists might THINK it is.)

(*This is for a scenario in a simulation game, where the player controls a politician during various kinds of crises, with the ultimate objective of maximizing their popularity, so the idea is to make it challenging but not unwinnable. However, the same mechanics could be used in any story about politics and zombies, so it's more a worldbuilding question than a game design one.)

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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm when they would be asymptomatic they aren't actual zombies. And I think the effects you describe won't "destroy civilization", it could cause an autocratic regime, because your "dumb people" may prefer that. The government is maintained, and will probably gain power. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 23 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ "Location should not be a significant factor " Except location is almost always significant when it comes to contagious diseases? If the outbreaks starts with a dense city with an active airport, the results will be quite different than if it starts in a small village in a poor country with no tourism and no international industry. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Jan 24 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ I would strongly recommend reading World War Z (which is wildly different from the film that borrows its name). The zombies in that work are quite close to "classic zombies," and he creates a rather realistic/believable narrative of both how it could spread into a global problem and how it could best a military defensive. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ Also worth watching Warm Bodies I have not read the book and the origins of the zombies is not the focus of the story, this screen rant doesn't do it justice but it is generally attributed to individuals evolving into zombies as they stop interacting with society and become focussed on social media, eventually they lose their humanity, almost as if the virus was always there and held dormant by human emotions and interactions. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ Though I haven't watched it all, I think in The Walking Dead everyone has the virus, but they only zombify when bitten or when they die. That last bit would make hospitals rather different places, but also change the dynamics of something like a war. $\endgroup$
    – Dark Hippo
    Jan 26 at 14:49

16 Answers 16

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Zombification as a Cure for Death:

Scientists make a breakthrough, a biological treatment for aging. It is so effective, that government agencies can't resist the pressure to approve it, OR the elderly are willing to travel to foreign countries to get it. Elderly politicians override organizations like the CDC to get the treatment.

Those who get treated stop aging. It does not stop the formation of wrinkles (in fact it speeds them up) or the decline of mental functions. Appetite increases as metabolism shoots up. But disabled people with dementia can now get up and move around freely. Organ damage reverses. They are confused, angry, and abnormally strong. There is a pronounced tendency to bite.

It stops cancer, and those treated don't die after major accidents. The government starts giving it to soldiers so they don't die after major injuries. Almost all diseases are cured by this. This is the promise of immortality.

But experts warn that neurological functions may be declining faster in those treated. Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses are rapidly climbing. Those treated become increasingly reckless as they realize they are almost impossible to kill. And now evidence is coming out that the treatment vector is able to spread by bite (a side-effect of their behavior). It seriously affects fertility. Soon the world will fill up with vigorous, angry, hungry, infectious, mentally incompetent elders and those treated for various illnesses.

People demand the treatment who don't need it. Violent crime is climbing. Food consumption is skyrocketing and no one is dying. Rumors of cannibalism are spinning around the internet. Famine is a real possibility. People discriminate against those who show signs of having received the treatment or even just being old. Politicians are talking about banning the treatment because of the danger to society, or isolating those treated to prevent contamination. The treated riot in the streets, and because of their aggression and physical abilities and tolerance for injury, the police can't stop them. Cities around the world are burning.

Are you going to be the politician (likely already treated with the immortality treatment) who tells people they can't take the miracle cure for disease? That the elderly should die of old age instead of living on, consuming resources yet being unable to hold down a job and wandering the streets idly and aggressively?

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    $\begingroup$ This is a good suggestion (upvoted). But why are we hating older people that much? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jan 23 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin because the war between the old (stuffy and boring, all the money, ruined the economy) and the young (seen and not heard, lazy, wasteful, no respect) is one of the great battles of our species. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 24 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin because the majority of initial zombies will be old people: they have (statistically speaking more likely) the money for the treatment, and more often a reason to get it. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 24 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ This whole thing could go further out of proportion if criminals started providing a clandestine version of the treatment that works very similarly, but has much more pronounced and fast showing side effects due to them tempering with the necessary procedures $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin, never been there, but I suspect it's common to countries with teenagers. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 25 at 8:41
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Tertiary COVID

When a person gets syphilis, there are multiple stages. First there is a local sore at the site (primary syphilis), then a rash all over the body (secondary syphilis), and much later, madness, nose rotting away, all sorts of unpleasant things.

With chickenpox, there is a rash and fever for a short time, then late in life there can be localized intensely painful outbreaks of shingles.

With COVID, we've seen primary COVID (people sick and often dying from breathing problems). In historical hindsight perhaps the 'long' symptoms of myocarditis and weakness might be dubbed a 'secondary' stage (though there may be a better explanation let's leave that aside for now). And then there's the tertiary stage...

We have all seen the thin edge of the normal curve with this. The first signs of the tertiary stage in action: riots, people shooting joggers, running over cops, beating up convenience store clerks over masks, fighting amid a bitter social climate dominated by tribal conflicts between people allegedly consumed with passion in favor of one of two choices of utterly uninspiring politicians. It is all written off as "stir crazy" and "politics", even though the evidence is that the COVID is remaining in people's bodies, and affects their brains.

The initial infection, especially if symptomatic, "protects" against the late effects to some degree, because sick people are simply too tired to go out and loot a jewelry store. So tertiary effects on crime rate don't stand out in the early statistics. As the immune system wears down against the invader, as homeostasis breaks down in the limbic system, people will put up a brave face and fight the good fight. They have morals and habits, and they won't just start chewing on their neighbor's arm. Not right away, anyway. Give it time...

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    $\begingroup$ This is some mind worm stuff right there. Thank you for making me a little bit more paranoid and enjoy the +1. (I'm joking about the paranoid thing btw. Not about the +1) $\endgroup$
    – 3C273
    Jan 24 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ Oh good, one more reason to build a bunker. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ There was one day early on, where Norway reported fewer total deaths than the day before. That story has gone suspiciously quiet since then... $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @user_1818839 aw come, all is quiet here, and the hospitalisation rates have been going down for quite a while now! There's nothing to the rumours. This was just a, hang on, there's a noise at the door, it was just a... wait, let me quickly check what's going on there, $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ Saw this today, which includes a quote: "a major concern beyond the initial COVID-19 infectious phase is foreseen to result from the occurrence of long lasting symptoms with more-or-less delayed onset and often involves neurological impairment [17, 64-66]". The paper gives some different ideas for mechanism, but it seems too late to throw activation of existing viruses hidden in the human genome into the answer above. But you might argue a case that zombies have happened before, by activating the same thing... $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 13:15
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Hedonist and irresponsible

These type of zombies aren't really undead, they are very much alive. They only look dangerous. In fact they are not really that dangerous. All zombies all skinny, because they don't eat much. And their faces look gruesome.

What happens: your zombies infect people, a small bite, or a scratch with a nail, out of friendship or affection, rather than hostility or predatory habits. The infected persons are going to leave their jobs, embrace an anarchist life style, have lots of parties and infect their friends, to become zombies too. They look awkward, after infection, but same time the zombies keep using language, practice culture (music etc) and some zombies become very popular TV hosts. These TV shows are mainly watched by zombies, of course. The beauty ideal shifts toward the skinny, large-eyed zombie type.

Consumption will cease

Society will now be crowded with zombies having parties and concerts all the time. They don't do shopping, zombies are not interested in material things, they prefer poetry. Or sell poetry, or modern art. Culture will flourish, but "economic life" as we know it is disappearing quickly. There's no income for lots of people, causing crime to flourish. Many non-infected will live in closed compounds, postponing the destruction of their civilization.

The government

The zombies don't pay taxes. They damage a lot of other interests too. The uninfected, still in power, will develop separation tactics, certain parts of the country are set apart for the zombies to live in. Elsewhere, the government will attempt to establish rules against zombies and chase them away, by putting them in jail for no reason. Problem is: the jails cannot be maintained ! Personnel will get infected soon.. and inside the prisons, the festivals will start. The government separation tactics won't work, the zombies prefer to live in the cities, because their cultural life is there.. the policy of separation does not work at all. Eventually, there will be no candidates left for president or governor.. and government will slowly dissolve, or become a sect, maintained by the uninfected folks in their compounds.

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    $\begingroup$ Not quite what I was aiming for, but I do like the idea of partially-symptomatic individuals who represent an economic threat, but would be defended by the population. The government could play up their threat, which could result in backlash that causes people to underestimate the threat of the actual dangerous zombies... $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, economics will be the primary issue, with my scenario. btw I doubt if the zombies would be protected by the (uninfected) population. The uninfected population will either get infected, or isolate themselves, in their own communities. The error the government made in my scenario: they attempted to forcefully separate the infected. Instead, it would be more fruitful, to isolate the uninfected, outside the cities and let them prosper, that is produce as much food as possible. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 23 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ I get the impression that someone doesn't like the modern stereotype of the poor arty hippy youth... $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 24 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ @NotThatGuy I love zombies ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 24 at 16:41
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Wide host range

Zombification is still spread by bites, but it's not just humans getting it. It's also birds, rats, mice, dogs, deer, etc. And, sure, you can isolate the people, but there's just no way to kill every living thing that came in contact with the virus. Even your walled compound isn't safe against a mouse or a raven.

If you really want to turn it up to 11 then even insects can get zombified. Equally you can dial it down by limiting the host range.

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If you use the zombie rules from The Return of the Living Dead then you should hit your scenario easily enough

The zombies are fast moving and reasonably intelligent so are a real danger if allowed to run free. As you pointed out a modern military would still be able to suppress huge numbers of the zombies.
The poor decision making comes from knowing how the 'virus' is spread, as this particular version of the zombie virus can be distributed through airborne particulates as well as the more traditional biting.

The government would have to prevent people from burning or exploding zombies, which is very simple if you live in a society where people actually listen to scientific advisors and follow their advice. Maybe convincing people to wear a face-mask might be all you need to do to prevent the situation getting out of control

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    $\begingroup$ "Send more paramedics." 😵 $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 9:56
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Frame challenge - every one of your assumptions is simply wrong

Biting is a horribly inefficient method for a pathogen to spread

Tell that to victims of diseases carried by tsetse flies or anopheles mosquitoes. Except you can't, because they're dead. As for its efficiency, malaria is still the fourth biggest cause of death of children globally.

Or the original model for this form of zombies, rabies. The shorter incubation period of a few days from bite to full symptoms matches that of much zombie fiction. The "hydrophobia" element of rabies is even a manifestation of the virus preventing swallowing so that the viral load in saliva is more concentrated.

the infected are obvious and scary enough

So are Alzheimers sufferers who experience loss of impulse control and are often violent. But we don't shoot them out of hand, in spite of the person being irrecoverably lost as the human being they once were. Could you shoot your own mother, even if she's mentally no longer what she was? Or allow anyone else to?

you could easily lockdown any zone that screwed up badly enough to be taken over

How? Suppose this happened in Massachusetts, one of the smaller states. Let's even suppose zombies can't swim. That's still a boundary of 515 miles, and you need to station enough troops along that boundary for no zombies to get through. 515 miles is 828km, so guessing at one person every 5m as a sufficient measure to cover the border (and cover for small clusters of zombies overloading one area) would need 166,000 people. That's a third of the whole regular US Army, or half the reserves. If you needed to cover the coastline as well (an extra 1500 miles) then that's up to the entire regular army and half the reserves. For one small state.

We can state as simple fact that locking down like this is entirely impossible for anything more than a small city.

and the undead are no match for a trained army in combat.

And for this one, you've clearly never read World War Z. Max Brooks describes, with evidence, how no modern military could possibly fight zombies effectively. The key part is the word "trained". Every part of military training presupposes that you're fighting humans, and every piece of equipment and every tactic is geared towards that. But none of that training or tactics works even slightly against zombies. Even bullets assume that hydrostatic shock will incapacitate a victim and loss of blood will kill them; and that's a doctrine which we already know is incorrect even for human beings.

In short...

There's no problems with asking your question, but you need a lot of preconditions for this. Your question explicitly tells us that you aren't aware of all these issues, so you need to put a lot more thought into your initial setup before any possible answer from here could be relevant.

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    $\begingroup$ World War Z relies on everyone in the military everywhere being complete morons. The Battle of Yonkers, as the prototypical example, depends on the planners being such incompetent idiots that they bring tanks armed with armour-piercing rounds against an enemy they know has no armour, they don't deploy basic security behind the battleline, they don't exploit the fact they have absolute control of the air, and that, most importantly, the enemy can't shoot back. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison Not morons - it relies on them following their training. It doesn't matter that the enemy can't shoot back if you've emptied an entire mag into their centre-mass and they're still coming for you. Bringing tanks - well, you deploy a regiment, you get everything. And air support isn't worth a damn if it can't surgically remove heads. Helicopters could have helped (and IIRC they did), but anything with jet engines, not so much. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jan 25 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ no, it didn't "rely on their training"; they do things that are completely against military training, such as not ensuring the security of their own rear. And how many times in Afghanistan did you see tanks being deployed on patrols? That was the military taking basic steps to deal with an enemy using appropriate means. And modern artillery and bombs using anti-personnel munitions don't need to remove the head, they do a good job dismembering the target. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ This answer basically assumes magical zombies. Any real zombie will die from blood loss, have massive system failures from trauma to the brain, etc. Zombies are just dumb humans. If we suppose they regenerate faster, they also metabolize faster, meaning we don't have to wall off Massachusetts because they starve before they reach the edge of the state (also, they're not actually trying to escape since they're dumb and just going for the nearest food source). Then just patrol for stragglers. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelS
    Jan 26 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ Look, to avoid me repeating what';s already been stated, go to tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/WorldWarZ and look at the entry for "Hollywood Tactics" which gives a breakdown of some of the basic mistakes Brooks made (deliberately or not) in order to have that battle turn out the way the book needed. $\endgroup$ Jan 26 at 9:13
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There is dark days ahead

A new, barely understood, bio-weapon of unknown origin has spread after a plane transporting it crashed. This organism, known as the blob, spread to the flora and fauna. it is in the food, in your dog and, of course, in you.

When an organism is alive, the blob is happy to just stay put and not do anything. Why it acts this way is difficult to explain, since the initial purpose of the blob remains wrapped in mysteries.

But when a living thing dies, the blob takes over. Reanimating bodies, through stimulation of muscles, tendons and other neurons, in a matter of minutes.

These zombies look very much like zombies, they shamble around with decent speed and unrelenting endurance. They have a nasty bite but it doesnt spread the blob, it's probably already in you, however it is extremely dirty and if a bite wound is not cleaned and disinfected it will result in a bad infection after around 10 minutes. This is treatable if one is able to get plenty of rest and medical care but swift amputation might be a safer bet.

Whats worse, with time, the blob will have time to grow and evolve its zombie host, resulting in a great variety of zombie strains, from bulky bulletproof zombies to fast climbers or powerful hulks.

Killing a zombie is difficult but perfectly achievable, the basic strain will take a few rifle rounds before they are downed. However, they will reanimate after a day or so if their bodies arent beaten to a pulp, dismembered or burned.

All dead creatures will turn into zombies, livestock, wildlife, pets and humans. With the notable exception of insects (they carry the blob but dont turn.)

Beating the blob

A strong and popular politician could deal with the situation if he is able to unite enough people and trains the population to understand the threat. Any death could be the start of an outbreak so monitoring would be essential.

Eventually, clean sources of food and water could be acquired and the blob could be pushed back. Research into the blob might also reveal weaknesses, leading expeditions in the labs where it originated could help understand it better too.

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  • $\begingroup$ Religions that encourage cremation would have an advantage here, so expect conversions, and the obvious political reactions from other religions losing members. $\endgroup$
    – JGNI
    Jan 24 at 16:04
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Make the Zombies Smart

... It does not need to make 100% of infected become mindless...

Just because you turn a person into a semi-immortal, obligatory cannibal does not mean they need to become dumb. If zombies are smart enough to hide out, plan their attacks, and use modern weapons, then they become a threat very similar to a terrorist organization. Easy to overpower with a concentration of force, but hard to get rid of completely.

Because they retain their intelligence, they know better than to kill off the whole herd that they need to survive; so, when they hunt, they turn only as many people as they need to guarantee their safety, but not so many as to create too much competition amongst their own kind. So, it is hard to ever get a full wipe of humanity or zombies because humans, being the food source, should by necessity always outnumber the zombies, and zombies will by their nature be able to replace casualties much faster than humans.

How Politics Factor In

Because these zombies are intelligent, they can be reasoned with. A smart leader could offer zombie kind a sanctuary where the remains of the human deceased are sent (instead of burial/cremation). Here zombies could live in harmony with man as long as they hold themselves responsible for not creating more zombies than they can feed.

But a hostile government that seeks to destroy the zombies forces the zombies to respond by growing their numbers. The zombies create large hoards than can only survive by sweeping through city after city turning or devouring everyone in their path. They would seize more firepower with each victory and creep back into the shadows after every major defeat to rebuild until eventually the governments they oppose so harshly would topple. In the long run, it would be almost impossible for a human nation to out right defeat a zombie nation, but the problem comes in when the war is done and those zombies that were made as soldiers now need to be feed... which means they will need to go to war with more nations to bring in more food.

Eventually the zombies will find themselves in a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction scenario where they have the power to destroy their human enemies, but not the power to turn back and save themselves. They know they are eating more humans than they can replace, but starvation does not give them any other choice.

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Plague: Zombie plague is spread by some sort of burrowing worms. Biting is an easy way to transmit but once there is more than enough spare worms in the host body, some will be left behind looking for a new host. Worms cannot live long outside the body. Once the body is killed for certain, they slowly abandon the host looking for new hosts. Most people think them as flesh worms. It takes quite a while to for the worms to take control of the host. One worm is enough to reproduce but they jump from host to host for gene transfer.

Once a worm is inside a new body, it will lay eggs as soon as it can. Eggs will hatch weeks later and slowly mature to take control. However, many factors can affect the egg development speed. For instance, they might require large quantities of a particular vitamin. It is also possible for person to be infected with enough worms so that they will take control almost immediately. Once enough worms hatch, they will drain a lot of blood, causing visible symptoms.

Outbreaks of such a scenario will be more erratic, as spread is not that easy but can happen to multiple people all at once, even if they have not come in contact with infected.

Effect: Once the plague is hit, goverments will go the usual route. Hide and downplay the issue. Some will suggest wearing masks and using hand sanitizers as it was effective before. Quarantine measures will be taken place but it will take single worm to spread to another region. Good management should ensure scientific progress to identify and nullify the worms. Stop travel all together and declare martial law. Most of these steps will not be popular. In the meanwhile, the plague will be spreading slowly, waiting for its time in limelight.

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I haven't seen it in any answer so I feel like I need to add this idea:

In the Walking Dead (comic/tv show), the idea is that the virus does not kill and is completely asymptomatic. After a few weeks/months, almost everyone on the planet is infected.

But, the problem is that anyone infected becomes a zombie on their death, whatever the cause of death. The zombie's bite does not infect, it just cause a fever that lead to death (and then revival).

I'm not sure it's enough by itself but if you add this characteristic you'll have an unending supply of zombies that can't be contained. Even if you kill every existing zombies, every new death will create more zombies. And while some civilizations might be able to destroy the bodies of most of their dead, there will be a lot of cases where it isn't possible.

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It's like rabies

We already have a terrible disease spreaded by biting, which is 100% deadly, but in civilized context easy to control. Rabies is really a terrible disease, almost impossible to eradicated because of big number of possible hosts, but thanks to vaccination and isolation it is under control in developed countries. Your zombie disease will be something similar, only that the inevitable death will be the beginning of the suffering, not the end. And somehow only people 'survive' death, you don't want an army of zombie squirrels terrorizing the world. Maybe because their brains are big enough so that it is not destroyed, but instead controlled by the virus.

Politicians are simply as stupid as now

Politicians are inevitable morons. This is because politics is such highly competitive, that in order to survive, you need to master your demagogy and machiavellic skills, and you have completely no time and energy to learn anything else, even on the elementary school niveau. So just like now, those morons aren't able to think out anything less stupid that closing the borders from the virus that is already everywhere and force wearing masks that work poorly even there, where the probability of infection is negligible, they will apply means, that will not stop the disease, but destroy everything else.

Lockdown

Yes, lockdown. The most stupid thing to do will be the most likely to happen. Zombies are slow. You could just warn people not to go into bushes before shuttering them, just like in the regions full of snakes, and not to sleep outside in the place that is not guarded. People wandering around would just spot zombies that would be quickly eliminated. As long as you're conscious, there's no real danger. You can outwalk zombie with no effort.

However, now that you're locked down, zombies are free to spread outside, because nobody cares. Instead, police and military concentrated on beating people trying to sneak outside. Nobody that doesn't belong to 'critical sectors' is allowed outside. Sport centres, culture, entertainment - this all is non existing, people from that sectors are recruited to deliver food to the rest of the population. People consume only small part of what they used before the lockdown. They need to eat and need electricity to heat their housing, but need very little clothes. Private cars are not used, so they need no petrol, no spare parts etc. The whole economics is frozen.

For the first few years people are getting more and more frustrated. There are more and more lockdown breakdowns - since the living condition of 90% of population effectively doesn't differ from prison, people stop caring about the consequences. However, people hiding from police outside are failing pray to zombies, so the disease spreads.

But remember, the politicians are morons, and now that morons have the power compared to the communistic party in the CCCR - since private sector is effectively non existing, they control the whole economy. Unfortunately, the so-called democratic politicians are missing the crucial ability of dictators of thinking a few years forward. Their mistaken assumptions about what is critical sector leads to the whole infrastructure failing apart because spare parts are missing, and skilled workers in lockdown are slowly loosing their skills. Or they die out, and are not replaced by younglings. Education is effectively non existing as well.

As the infrastructure deteriorate, the delivery chains breaks, so the even more people are not delivered by basic products. Forget that they walk in rugs - politicians have forgotten not everyone has 100 pairs of shoes and jeans in their wardrobe. They have not enough to eat and blackouts are so common, that in the nights it is freezing cold. And housing no longer are safe heavens from zombies, so people get infected in their housed.

The frustration grows to the level, that more and more people organize in gangs, that take what they need, which require attacking police and other citizens. Slowly the government looses control and ceases to exist. Now gangs rule, and they have no interest in providing security to the broad population, they fight over their districts. Nobody is actively hunting zombies, since it's dangerous and brings no profit. Zombies are everywhere. Everything is lost.

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Zombies contain a useful drug

Its found that if you harvest the blood (whats left of it) from a Zombie, then you can cure INSERT_DISEASE. Thus you don't want to kill all the zombies as you want to keep some to farm. Of course it doesn't help that zombies don't like being farmed or having their blood drawn and thus have a tendency to try and escape captivity (or eat the farmers).

Getting blood from a zombie becomes so dangerous that you have to "volunteer" prisoners to do the collection (helps that if they fail then they become another source of the drug in a few days time). What happens once you run out of prisoners? looks like there's some new laws on the books that only undesirable people ever seem to be convicted of.

The drug also has a very short half life, thus the farms must be placed near population centers to have any chance of being administered in time.

Of course you have some people saying all of this is inhumane and you should either kill the zombies or free them, and then others that want more zombies so they can make more of the drug and make more money.

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You dismiss long incubation periods out of hand. I think you could strike a balance between slightly longer incubation periods and infection rate.

Covid has incubation of a few days. It requires harsh lock-downs to control. While the lock-downs are in effect, many people ignored them. Want to enforce them? Military? Very unpopular. Unpopular politicians would also increase civil disobedience.

I think an incubation of perhaps a week would be very effective. Balance this with a lower infection rate, and you would need (geographically) huge lockdowns, with relatively small numbers of infected -> more civil disobedience.

Successful lockdowns are indistinguishable from unneeded lockdowns.

You could also apply "the boy who cried wolf" - each successive panic, if successfully controlled, will cause more people to dismiss the next one.

If you want to really ramp up the stress, make it clear from the start that there's an election halfway through the game, and show your approval rating as you progress.

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A three-stage progressive illness exacerbated by hunger and stress

The Pathology

Most zombies are harmless - at least at first.

The virus can spread through the air (not quite as fast as colds or the flu, but high enough to have a high chance of spreading in crowds or through households). Transmission through saliva, blood, and other bodily fluids produces a much higher viral load. Depending on how the person is infected and the size of their viral load, the progression of the illness happens differently.

When infected through the air, around 20% of the time, the body fights off the infection successfully, with only a short period of feverishness and confusion. Usually, those who fight off the infection once are less vulnerable to being infected later, but immunity is not perfect and often wanes over time.

70% of those infected through the air become "stage 1 zombies" or "para-zombies". They become listless and unmotivated, and their intelligence and coordination take a hit, but they are still people. They are, however, infectious - uninfected who spend time around them can be infected through the air.

Sometimes the virus can go into remission or even disappear entirely, but this can take years, and it becomes far less likely if the infected is constantly exposed to other infected para-zombies.

About 10% of people infected through the air will enter a catatonic state which can be mistaken for death. Most of these will wake up as "stage 2 zombies". They are slow, durable, and essentially mindless, reduced to their most basic instincts, but are not normally aggressive. However, they can become aggressive if provoked.

About 10% of those who go catatonic (1% of the infected) become "stage 3 zombies", attacking and attempting to eat any living human they see.

Notably, stage 3 zombies are not aggressive towards stage 2 zombies, though they are aggressive towards stage 1. It is not clear why - possibly the smell, possibly something in the movement avoids triggering their predatory instinct.

However, all zombies need to eat - and stage 1 and stage 2 can progress to stage 3 if they get hungry. Stage 1 can progress to stage 3 due to prolonged stress, as well. Furthermore, people who are bitten by a stage 3 zombie - uninfected and para-zombie alike - get a much higher viral load than those infected through the air, and are far more likely to progress straight to the later stages.

What will happen

When the first stories of people waking up from "death" and attacking people around them start to spread, zombie preppers will immediately grab their shotguns. Even before the pathology of the virus is understood, a wave of violence will be inevitable, triggering a social divide and prompting fear of both the mildly infected and would-be survivalists alike. This will simmer down after a while, once the public decides that the infected are sick, not monsters, but the memory of the first month will remain and undercut relations between the infected and the uninfected.

Countries that have effective disease control procedures in place will be able to arrest the spread of the virus before it can do much damage. Small outbreaks of stage-3 zombies will be contained before they spread, and para-zombies will be isolated and observed to learn more about the virus. Some might even be cured and be able to return to normal life.

If the virus manages to spread to the point where the number of para-zombies is too high to be held in isolation, that is where the problems start.

Zom-coms

One solution that many countries may come up with is to establish isolated communities for para-zombies: zombie communes, or "Zom-Coms". In these areas, in theory, para-zombies can live normally without endangering the uninfected.

Trouble is, living on a zom-com is basically a death sentence. Para-zombies are just not very hard workers, and it is unlikely that they will be able to produce enough to pay for the food they need, so they are forced to rely on charity to survive. This charity will be hard to come by, since it's hard to make people feel sympathy for zombies.

Once the hunger and stress become too much, stage-3 outbreaks will become commonplace within the zom-coms. The communes to become ticking time bombs, only one bad decision away from an explosion roaming stage-3s ready to attack nearby communities. Inevitably, zom-coms will need guards, making them feel more like prisons than leper colonies.

None of these will help their image, and zom-coms will find it even harder to collect food and resources, exacerbating the problem further. Some people will argue for the liquidation of the communes, arguing that they are not worth the trouble of sustaining.

Once stories of para-zombie remission become known, uninfected will fight to have their friends and family released from the zom-coms, in the hope of giving them a chance of survival. A competent government will try to stop it, but exceptions will be made - and outbreaks will begin anew.

Giving Up

Some countries might simply give up trying to contain the virus. In these countries, the virus will inevitably spread, causing the majority of the population to become para-zombies. Unable to work up the motivation to produce resources, the economy will collapse, and the hungry para-zombies will progress to an aggressive state, attacking any uninfected who remain within reach.

Society collapses. The only survivors will be those that isolated themselves behind walls. Eventually the last zombies starve to death, and the society must be rebuilt from the ground up.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to suggest something comparable, with a less cleanly defined Stage classification. Simply, the infected suffer a steady degredation of their higher brain functions. They might start out fine, then they start having blackouts, minor seizures, hunger cravings that can't be satisfied (except by red meat) and all sorts of symptoms reminiscent of alzheimers and other neurological conditions. Early in the plague, they'd be misdiagnosed easily, and people would do their best to help their loved ones (becoming infected themselves) and so the zombie plague would spread until it's too late. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Jan 25 at 10:41
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I think there's a few aspects to this.

The first is about how people are turned into zombies - is it via some sort of physical contact/injection into the blood, or even some sort of airborne vector? How long does it take them to turn?

The second is: how clever are the zombies? If they're less intelligent than humans (and/or easily led by their desire for tasty, tasty brains), then it'll be relatively easy to establish doctrine to wipe them out. After all, there's a reason why there's pretty much no land-based animal which is able to match the capabilities of a 2-year old human child: we've already wiped out anything which was able to directly compete with us.

And the third is: how long do the zombies actually last for? Are they actually dead and decomposing, or alive but insane and refusing to eat anything other than human flesh? Either way, there's going to be a finite amount of time before a zombie ceases to be a threat.

There's certainly lots of interesting explorations for all of this stuff. The book for World War Z is certainly good (far more so than the movie which was nominally based on it), not least because it highlights just how hard it'd be to deal with large groups of traditional zombies via standard anti-personnal doctrine. And how easy it'd then be to deal with said groups once better tactics are adopted.

Similarly, The Girl With All The Gifts has some interesting takes on what'd happen with super-intelligent zombies. As does the original I am Legend book and associated movie (the 70s Omega Man, not Will Smith's I Am Legend).

And then there's Return of the Living Dead. Which may be a cheesy 80s b-movie, but also gave us fast and intelligent zombies long before they came into mainstream vogue. And that film definitely set up a worrying premise; without giving any spoilers, there's a good reason that they have to resort to drastic measures at the end, even if those measures perhaps aren't successful!

However, and as mentioned by IndigoFenix, I suspect the best way to make a civilisation-destroying zombie plague would be to have some sort of cure available in limited quantities. This would completely change the dynamics of fighting the zombies, since the focus would shift to containment/treatment rather than elimination. And it'd also give rise to tensions about access to the cure, leading to things like stockpiling, black markets, etc...

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Zombification via infectious idea.

The infected people are still people. But their attitudes towards society and government radically change. Infected persons become insular and suspicious of nonbelievers - the uninfected. Infected persons share their fear and paranoia with other infected persons. They perceive persecution where there is none. They lash out at persons they perceive to be critical of the infectious ideas and the society of the infected.

The memes responsible for the infection look ridiculous to persons who are not infected - patently false and unbelievable. But somehow people do get infected and once infected, the society of the other infected pulls the infected person down the rabbit hole. Noninfected persons try reason or gentle persuasion; they try demonstrating facts. These methods do not work. There is no clear way for the infected to become uninfected.

The destruction of society happens from the inside. Infected persons retain all the rights and responsibilities they had before infection, except now their judgement and insight has completely changed. Opportunistic politicians might see benefit in coopting the infected, but it is very much a two edged sword and this easily backfires. The infected can destabilize the institutions of democratic government just by their participation, but they might not be satisifed with that. The underpinnings of society itself must change. Even that will not suffice.


A politician must walk a fine line. The infected are not raving monsters. They are uncles and grandmothers. The infected can love. They are people. They are part of society but they are dangerous to society. How then to rescue society from infectious ideas and the people these ideas have infected?

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  • $\begingroup$ Now I am worried the infected might come and downvote. Infected: I am not talking about your personal beliefs! I am talking about infectious ideas generally that can be what the OP needs them to be, or just an assortment of crazy ideas for the game. Here is an example: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantism $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 26 at 19:27

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