CDC versus the Zombies
Why undead ideas hamper agencies
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of undead ideas, like the myth of the CDC’s hyper-competence.
CDC versus the Zombies
Even before 2020’s lockdown led to a surge in board game sales, the game Pandemic was well enough known that social media users would occasionally joke about the fact that the game, focused on controlling infectious disease, starts in the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. Before pandemic, you see, the CDC headquarters wasn’t often something you thought about—certainly not enough to base a game there.
Artifacts like Pandemic formed part of the mythos of CDC. So did Contagion, the Soderbergh movie about the seemingly far-fetched idea that a contagious virus from Asia could wreck the U.S. economy and lead to us all being locked down in our homes for years while conspiracy theorists peddled alternative cures on the Internet. There weren’t quite any heroes in the movie, but the CDC’s agents and researchers (along with those of the WHO) came closest. And early seasons of The Walking Dead, the zombie TV sensation, revolved around a quest to reach CDC headquarters in Atlanta out of a hope that the agency could cure the zombie virus.
Even before Pandemic: The Home Edition came out, then, the CDC’s image was anchored in both real-world respectability and popular culture. CDC administrators and public health experts could tout the agency as the “gold standard” for the world, and there was little ambient reason to cast doubt on that image.
Probably the zenith of the CDC’s popular image came from, in essence, one of its own press releases. Back in 2011, CDC put out a fun, zippy preparedness campaign urging the public to get ready for real disasters—from pandemics to floods to terrorist attacks—by talking about what it would take to get ready for a fake disaster: a zombie apocalypse.
There were blog posts and social media campaigns—even a comic book produced by the agency around the hook that the CDC would quickly be able to bring a zombie pathogen under control.
The campaign was an enormous success by the metrics. It drove billions of pageviews and impressions. It was also kind of weird, in retrospect. The overt message was trying to drive people to be prepared for the time between a disaster striking and the government being able to help. But like any public-facing message, the agency wanted to tout its own prowess—and against the quasi-medicinal threat of zombies, CDC couldn’t refrain from talking themselves up. Even if the fictional worst came to pass, material like the comic book promised, the CDC would handle it. Surely they could handle any real threat just as well.
I think it’s safe to say that CDC hasn’t lived up to the billing. And that makes it worth wondering whether the image was part of the problem—not to the same degree that overt hostility to vaccines has been, to be sure, but nevertheless part of the hubristic approach to all we’ve been through since the virus began to make headlines in the winter of 2019-2020. The idea that the CDC could save us all was a deus ex scientia.
And, surprisingly, the zombie campaign probably backfired. Not just by reinforcing hubris, but even on its own terms.
Let’s get something straight: the CDC probably would have responded better to Covid had Trump not been president. The pandemic was exactly the sort of risk that the braying blond blowhard was ill-prepared to address.
But “Trump was president” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for agencies seeking to duck responsibility for their poor performance. Ascribing poor performance to Trump’s incumbency is a dodge for other actors, too. Trump certainly exacerbated the funding and leadership problems at the agency. The agency had been underfunded and likely underscrutinized for a long time before he took office. There’s plenty of blame to be apportioned among members of Congress and others who may find it convenient to point fingers at the disgraced Florida man.
It’s far from clear that CDC would have performed particularly well under another president. As Reuters reported, it wasn’t just political interference that undermined the agency: the problems were longstanding and way deeper than one administration, and touched even the agency’s core competencies.
In addition, the agency failed at that time to make effective use of outside experts and appeared at times unprepared for the crisis on the ground, lacking adequate personal protective gear and ignoring established protocols, Reuters found.
“Yes, they were interfered with politically,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, referring to alleged meddling by the Trump administration. “But that’s not the only reason CDC didn’t perform optimally during COVID-19. There are a lot of things that went wrong.”
For years—down to the present day—CDC has struggled not just to surveil diseases but even to do simple stuff like craft dashboards to collate data already known. There’s a reason that Johns Hopkins, CovidActNow, and other data viz teams found a niche: CDC just wasn’t good at a core public health communication task—one that should have been obviously important to the agency. Worse, the CDC even proved bad at, frankly, just counting:
The most recent example: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been overcounting the number of Americans who’ve received at least one dose of vaccine. The agency’s data are far off from what many states have been reporting on their own, meaning there are millions more unvaccinated than its numbers show.
… That issue followed another a few weeks earlier. After the U.S. cleared Covid shots for kids age 5 to 11 at the start of November, it took the CDC almost three weeks to publish data on how many children had been vaccinated. In the meantime, an impatient White House started its own ad hoc data collection effort, assembling vaccination numbers for the age cohort from states and vaccine providers, according to people familiar with the matter.
Reports by journalists with way better contacts than I have have shown that the CDC was also, bluntly, not competent at things like running a clean lab (something evident before Covid!) or developing tests for the virus—to say nothing of sounding the alarms about political interference.
The image of CDC competence was somewhat overrated. If you’re tempted to retort that, well, what do you expect for an underfunded agency operating under federalism that has long blunted public health efforts—that’s fair. But in that case, the agency should have talked about these problems and tried to fix them instead of basking in their image. If you talk big but don’t deliver, you can’t point to special pleading afterward.
So let’s talk about that zombie preparedness campaign.
It turns out that there’s a small, but surprisingly rigorous, academic literature about the CDC’s zombie preparedness campaign. And it’s none too complimentary.
Researchers Marjorie Kruvand and Fred Bryant carried out an online experiment to test whether young adults responded in the way that CDC hoped they would to the zombie experiment. The results, published in Public Health Reports, suggested strongly that the zombie message was counterproductive.
Kruvand and Bryant recruited undergraduate students to test the effect of the message by comparing it with a straightforward preparedness message. (Normally, convenience samples of undergraduates should be viewed with at least a little suspicion, but in this case young adults were the target audience, making the sampling strategy more justifiable.) The researchers concluded that the zombie message was viewed by participants as “fun, cool, and interesting” but had “no influence on retention or resulted in less retention relative to the factual approach”—that “the capability of the campaign fell short of CDC’s goals.”
Researchers Julia Daisy Fraustino and Liang Ma conducted another experiment evaluating the campaigns’s success, published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research. They noted that humorous messages can be effective sometimes, but that “humor may also trivialize the perceived seriousness of the topic”. To evaluate whether the CDC’s humorous zombie message worked for or weakened the message, they also recruited undergraduate students for an online experiment. They varied whether respondents received a straight preparedness message or the zombie one (separately, they manipulated whether the message appeared to be part of a social media or traditional media campaign).
Their findings were similarly grim. Subjects in the humorous condition were less likely to declare an intention to prepare an emergency kit, make a plan for an emergency evacuation, engage in emergency preparedness, or even research more about the topic.
The zombie campaign was meant to show that CDC could reach new audiences and persuade them to take action. It half-succeeded. In this case, though, a half-success may have been worse than none. Framing a pandemic as an apocalypse may not only have undermined the preparedness message but also twisted the message. One critic of the agency’s campaign writes that it is no surprise that respondents who saw the zombie message said that their emergency kits shouldn’t contain water or medicines but weapons: guns, knives, and baseball bats.
The zombie campaign didn’t cause the pandemic. Pandemic didn’t cause the pandemic, for that matter. My claim here is more limited: that the audiences for the zombie campaign and other totems of the myth of CDC hypercompetence very, very modestly contributed to a feedback loop in which CDC’s failures were overlooked and downplayed, making it easier for the agency to fall into bad habits long before pandemic.
More strongly, these sorts of campaigns and images helped produce expectations of supercompetence that contributed to something like a moral hazard: if we have a super-agency that can handle anything up to a zombie virus, why should we prepare or expect to do anything ourselves? Let the CDC fix it: it’s their job, and they’re good at it.
One thing that should, but won’t, come out of the pandemic is a serious reckoning with what the hell just happened. Ideally, this would be a 9/11 Commission-style investigation—or, even better, an NTSB-style investigation that blames nobody but just tries to find out what happened. It won’t happen because this is a hyper-polarized country in which Covid is itself hyperpolarized. But it should, because all this will happen again.