I'd chosen China as ground zero for my 2006 novel, "World War Z," for a reason. When I was thinking up an origin story for my fictional pandemic, it wasn't enough to choose a country with a massive population or a rapidly modernizing transportation network. I needed an authoritarian regime with strong control over the press. Smothering public awareness would give my plague time to spread, first among the local population, then into other nations. By the time the rest of the world figured out what was going on, it would be too late. The genie would be out of the bottle, and our species would be fighting for its life.
But after it was first published in the United States, my book was banned in China — or, to be completely accurate, my would-be collaborators overseas asked me to remove all chapters about China because of their "politically sensitive material." They told me that my criticism of the government would make the authorities "jumpy." Putting out the book, complete and unaltered, could "destroy a publishing company." Someone suggested either changing China's name to that of a fictional country or else publishing the offensive chapters separately online. I'm not sure how that would have worked, exactly — maybe they'd be hosted on a server outside China, or maybe it was just a fantasy to placate me — but either way, I was told that this was the best we could do.
I refused. Having an open society, where the government operates transparently and information circulates freely, is the bedrock of public health. Censoring those chapters would play into the very dynamics that endanger citizens. Even with the best of intentions, a government that operates secretively and without accountability is ill-equipped to contain an epidemic. Lacking trust in the authorities, or dependable sources of knowledge about how to protect themselves — whether from infection or from abuses of power — citizens are left more vulnerable to both.
As much as I'd like to take creative credit for coming up with this scenario in my book, the one that inadvertently foreshadowed today's crisis, I didn't: I based the spread of my virus on the real-life spread of SARS. Cases emerged in China in late 2002, but for months, the Chinese government did not warn the public about the new and deadly pathogen. Authorities forbade newspapers from reporting on it, undercounted cases and were slow to share information with the World Health Organization. By the end of the outbreak in July 2003, the pathogen had shown up halfway around the world, infecting 8,000 people and killing 774.
As of this writing, a new strain of coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people, and 2,770 have died — and it looks like we're just getting started. Some have praised what China learned from SARS: It established a nationwide system for hospitals and clinics to report outbreaks, for example, and officials in China have issued public statements emphasizing the need for greater transparency, as well as its rapid response to this new epidemic. But that centralized power also helped enable the outbreak.
There might not have been a need for rapid hospital construction and mobilization if the authorities hadn't played down the severity of the coronavirus and silenced early whistleblowers like Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who tried to share news about the new virus. His posts were censored, and the police forced him to sign a letter stating that he'd made "false comments." That's not so different from what happened to my fictional first responder in "World War Z," Kwang Jingshu: He was gagged by those in power. Unlike Kwang, however, Li eventually died of the disease he tried so hard to stop. His death sparked an online outcry among outraged Chinese citizens, who called for freedom of speech. They were also silenced, their posts removed and hashtags deleted. In recent weeks, state-run media has been instructed to cover only positive stories about the relief efforts, and Internet platforms have been more vigilant about removing articles critical of the government.
How can we trust any government that values control more than public safety? Of all the countries I write about in "World War Z," the most mysterious is North Korea. In my book, the entire population disappears underground. They might all be safe. They might all be undead. We don't know. In the real world, Kim Jong Un has claimed that there are no coronavirus cases in North Korea. Is that true? We don't know. Meanwhile, Iran has reported the largest number of deaths from the virus outside China. Its mortality rate, 8.7 percent, is so much higher than in other countries that critics have questioned whether the number of infections has been underreported or whether the government has suppressed information about the public health crisis.
In the United States, we have a free and open society that lets us protect ourselves. But that freedom doesn't mean freedom from responsibility. In "World War Z," the zombie plague infects America because Americans are too distracted by greed, apathy, gullibility; they reject science and willfully embrace an incompetent president. Does that sound familiar? On his trip to India this past week, President Trump called the coronavirus "a problem that's going to go away," and at a news conference back in Washington, he claimed that "the risk to the American people remains very low." The good news is that he's not the only one with a voice. We can turn to more qualified sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warns that "disruption to everyday life may be severe." But whose word will we heed? In China, it's difficult for citizens to access the truth. In America, we might not care.
I don't want my book to predict things to come. When the disease really hits the United States — and it will, according to the CDC — we all need to do our part. When the medical community tells us how to protect ourselves, we need to listen. When civil servants tell us what it will cost to strengthen our institutions, we need to pay up. Lastly, when we hear our fellow citizens surrendering to rumors, gossip or any unscientific fearmongering, we need to push back as if they were coughing in our face.
I was prevented from publishing my book in China because the government did not want to confront its own flaws, even when heavily fictionalized. But if we admit ours now, and work together to correct them, we can ensure that World War Z remains firmly in the realm of fiction.