Dear COVID-19, Kill The Zombie Phrase "Don't Waste A Crisis"
Several years ago, the CDC launched a campaign known as “Zombie Preparedness,” designed to increase society’s ability to prepare for public health emergencies. Since that time, the idea of a zombie apocalypse has been used in various public health messages to communicate about natural and human-made disasters. It comes as no surprise then that writers have borrowed the zombie metaphor to describe aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Articles have compared this public health crisis to the 2006 book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and various zombie movies, for example. Other writers have made comparisons between zombie phenomena and our adaptability as humans, infection rates, and even what our near-empty city streets look like as the result of the pandemic.
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The appeal of using zombies as a literary device is straightforward. Our culture is stuffed full of them. Pulp fiction novels portraying zombies have been popular with readers since the 1920s. We have the classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead movie and all of the other zombie films that went on to become box office smashes. The television series The Walking Dead has been one of the most watched shows by adult audiences. The list goes on and on.
By definition, a zombie is the unnatural state of having been reanimated after death. Films, television shows, and print media would have us believe that the walking dead do little more than feed on live human flesh, creating more zombies in the process. Also, the only way to kill a zombie is to decapitate the head from the body. The “undead” become dead again, this time permanently (one hopes).
The Washington Post headline “6 Zombie Claims About The Coronavirus That Just Won’t Go Away” is just one more example of writing that links the zombie metaphor to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this time the connection is about ideas that won’t die, not the walking dead. Which brings us to the point of this article, which concerns an idea, or in this instance a quote, that seems to have taken on a life of its own in the age of coronavirus. It comes from a presidential administration long gone now, and yet seems to have been resurrected with a new fierceness, multiplying exponentially in usage as the days go by. It is, in fact, a zombie quote.
The culprit? Former Obama administration chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s 2008 statement that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If you Google that quote with the word coronavirus you will find over 7,000 hits. Seriously. In a few instances, the results of this search will take you to articles that use this quote to conjure up a generally positive outlook — for example, how the pandemic might lead to a fair and just society. More typical, however, is an application of the Emanuel line to create more nefarious scenarios.
In higher education circles, the writing is almost strictly doom and gloom when it comes to the application of the “don’t waste a crisis” quote. Tenure-track faculty members are writing about plots conceived by university leaders to use the COVID-19 crisis to weaken their ranks. Non-tenure track faculty members are expressing worry that administrators will utilize the pandemic to erode their already precarious employment situation regarding compensation, job security, and health care. And so on.
The tedious overuse of this zombie-like quote should be enough to dissuade writers from its future employment. However, there are some contextual issues that should be considered as well. When Rahm Emanuel first made his quip, the Obama administration was dealing with the 2008 financial crisis. What became known as “Rahm’s Rule” was a form of crisis management that implied a rather significant amount of opportunism, especially in terms of providing cover for redistributing resources to favored interest groups. After all, the remainder of the quote was “it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, we are dealing with a crisis that does not fit the mold of the situation faced by the Obama administration. The root cause of this emerging catastrophe is biological, for starters, not political or financial. It is a public health crisis, and as such the protection of lives is the central focus.
Whether the sector in question is higher education or some other institutional structure within our society, the near-term responses to the COVID-19 pandemic do not seem to bear the markings of opportunistic activity. Despite the shrill cries of the far left and the far right, most of the decisions enacted by our leaders so far seem to have erred on the side of protecting the health of the public at large.
Yes, there will be more and more politics involved as we shift to a new phase of responding to the disease. And yes, the fact that we are spending vast sums of money to combat the pandemic will creates lots of risk for self-serving activity. When the time comes to describe the issues and concerns inherent to these activities, however, let us not cite Rahm Emanuel. As the Walking Dead character Dale Horvath stated in season one: “Words can be meager things. Sometimes they fall short.” This seems an apt way to describe the “don’t waste a crisis” line.