How to Survive the Next Catastrophic Pandemic

Experts say it’s not a matter of if, but when a global scale pandemic will wipe out millions of people. And we are grossly unprepared for the next major outbreak. But in the event of a devastating pandemic—whether it be triggered by a mutated strain of an existing virus or a bioengineered terror weapon—there are some practical things you can do, both before and during the outbreak, to increase your odds of survival.

Throughout history, pathogens have wiped out scores of humans. During the 20th century, there were three global-scale influenza outbreaks, the worst of which killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people, or about 3 to 5 percent of the global population. The HIV virus, which went pandemic in the 1980s, has infected about 70 million people, killing 35 million.

Several new viruses have since emerged, including SARS, MERS, Ebola, and most recently, Zika. There’s also the grim potential for someone to bioengineer a deadly pathogen in the lab. Advances in gene sequencing and gene-editing technologies are making such nightmare scenarios increasingly plausible. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this form of bioterrorism could wipe out 30 million people in less than a year.

At the same time, our society is setting itself up for a global-scale disaster. Diseases, particularly those of tropical origin, are spreading faster than ever before, owing to more long-distance travel, urbanization, lack of sanitation, and ineffective mosquito control—not to mention global warming and the spread of tropical diseases outside of traditional equatorial confines. Accordingly, Oxford’s Global Priorities Project has listed a possible future pandemic as one of the worst catastrophic threats currently facing humanity.

Flu, a model for destruction

It’s difficult to know the exact form a viral pandemic would take, but for the sake of this exercise we’re going to assume it’s likely to be a disease similar to influenza. Unlike diseases that spread through bodily fluids or by mosquitoes, influenza is a respiratory disease spread through the air (e.g. coughing and sneezing). That makes it much more virulent, and far more dangerous.

What’s more, we know it’s a strong flu that mutates easily, it’s deadly in some cases, it can spread before symptoms appear, and it’s is very capable of reaching pandemic levels of infection. It’s also a strain for which most people don’t have immunity or resistance. By any measure, the flu, whether it be a strain spawned from H5N1, H1N1, or H7N9, is a legitimate candidate for the next global-scale outbreak.

Preparing for the worst

Like any prepper worth their grain of salt, it’s important to have the right supplies on hand.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that you store a two week supply of water and food, but given that the first wave of a pandemic could last considerably longer than that (some outbreaks last years), it would be wise to stock up for at least four to six weeks, and longer if possible. Make sure you store non-perishable foods that don’t need to be refrigerated, prepared, or cooked. Have a 2-4 week supply of water in clean plastic containers. A good rule of thumb is to store a gallon of water per person per day, which would allow for both drinking, food preparation, and sanitation.

Dr. Stephen Redd, the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (PHPR) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Gizmodo it’s important to consider the season, and stock items like coats and blankets that will keep you warm. He also recommends buying a battery operated radio, along with a month’s supply of any prescription medicines you may be taking.

According to epidemiologist Mark Smolinski, a Chief Medical Officer and Director of Global Health Threats at the US NGO Skoll Global Threats, you may want to consider stocking up on antiviral medications—drugs that can be used to treat flu illnesses, though he cautions that these drugs can become less effective over time.

In addition to stocking up on prescription meds, FEMA recommends nonprescription drugs and other health supplies, including a standard first aid kit, pain relievers, stomach remedies, and cold medicines. FEMA says you should get copies of your health records from your doctor, hospital, pharmacy, and other sources and have them ready for personal reference. If you’re in the United States, Health and Human Services provides an online tool to help you do this.

You should also get the latest seasonal vaccine. It may not protect you against the mutated strain, but then again, it just might.

Plan for the unexpected

The CDC says you should plan for the possibility that usual services may be disrupted, including those provided by hospitals, banks, stores, post offices, and telephone and cell phone companies.

ATMs will likely be shut down or out of money, so you should keep a small amount of cash on hand. Be prepared for disruptions to bus and subway services, along with possible fuel shortages, and stock up on supplies ahead of time. Families should also come up with a plan to take care of children who have to stay home from schools or daycare, as these places will likely be shut down during an outbreak.

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