One of the common complaints about the pandemic is that no-one saw it coming and that everyone was underprepared as a result. But that’s not true. Many experts said a pandemic was not only possible but likely. Medical Chiefs, Professors of Infectious Diseases and Virologists warned that a virus could sweep across our increasingly connected planet. Beyond these experts, a separate group of people not only saw COVID–19 coming our way. They had also been preparing for it.
While they would hate to be thought of as anything other than sensible people taking precautions that the rest of us are too foolish to consider, it often seems that so-called Preppers are members of a cult that glories in the potential for planetary ruin.
Convinced that societal breakdown was around the corner, Preppers and their 1970s predecessors, the Survivalists, prepared for the coming apocalypse and the power outages, food shortages and civil unrest that would follow in its wake. The possibility of a nuclear winter or chemical warfare added spice to that meaty stew and made Preppers’ kit lists longer. The more serious of them built shelters stocked with freeze-dried food, gas, batteries and torches as a result.
And, if their shelter was in a remote part of Montana, they also bought weapons. A lot of weapons. The reference point here is Burt in the 1990 movie Tremors, about huge worms (‘Graboids’) that attack the remote town of Perfection (population 14, and declining). Burt’s excitement at being able to call on his considerable arsenal when a graboid attacks his bunker is as effective as it is amusing, and is now the source of hundreds of memes.
The UK’s Preppers seem to be a less gung-ho bunch than their US cousins, perhaps because they don’t have the guns. A recent thread on a UK prepping Reddit forum discussed the merits of Fray Bentos pies; one Prepper suggesting that every pantry should carry these tinned treats that famously boast a shelf life longer than most radioactive isotopes. This makes sense. Those pies should be, er, good to eat around the time when a COVID-19 vaccine is created, Ocado opens up some more slots, and the Cummings family Nissan has clocked up a million miles up and down the M1.
Judging from the forums, Preppers delight in creating and maintaining an EDC (an Every Day Carry bag) stuffed with useful things, and a Bug-Out Bag, which has everything they need to survive for 72 hours in a predefined safe location away from home. Prepper forums are full of people sharing images of their EDC kit and debating the ideal contents. In what is perhaps a uniquely English example of prepping, one forum member recently asked whether wellies would suffice instead of NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) overboots. Sure, came the response. They are rubber.
No doubt the Preppers were thrilled when everyone else fought over loo roll in empty-shelved supermarkets as the pandemic first unfolded, as their pantries were stuffed with dried pasta, marmite and Andrex. So they got that bit right. But consider that an EDC is effectively useless when you are locked down during a global pandemic, and the only thing you carry every day is your sad arse around the block for your government-mandated daily exercise.
Preppers have been regularly featured on TV, probably because they provide so much comedic value. I remember one show which followed an overweight Survivalist in the Mid West, who toured his remote ranch every day on a quad bike, with a Doberman in tow and an assault rifle balanced precariously on the handlebars. I imagine the producers were waiting to see when, not if, it would discharge its lethal load into either him or the dog.
Now, of course, his obesity would put him in a high-risk category for COVID-19. So, while I hope he is still touring that ranch each day, I fear his idea of prepping was not sufficiently well informed to consider a weight loss programme. And if he is still alive, he no doubt refuses to wear a facemask, at he believes doing so constitutes a threat to his personal liberty. So prepping has its limits.
Plus which, automatic weapons aren’t much use against a virus. Sure, they help keep away marauders after your food stocks, but what the world needs now is a vaccine, not more Armalites. Even though firearm sales are up this year in the US.
It appears that many Preppers in the USA are motivated by a fear that Government is encroaching too far into their lives. While it certainly doesn’t seem like a nanny state from afar, the US Government is accused by many Survivalists of wanting to remove their hard-won rights and freedoms. And their guns. Always the guns. The reaction of the Preppers is to stock up, ship out and withdraw to their bunkers.
Yet much of the way the pandemic has been mishandled — indeed, the very emergence and spread of the virus itself — is down to the fact that Governments hadn’t done enough, and are now desperately trying to catch up. It’s not so much that Governments have been getting too big for their boots, but they had been shirking their responsibilities to keep us safe, instead.
An exercise in 2017 gauged the impact of a pandemic and concluded that Britain was not adequately prepared for a flu-like pandemic’s “extreme demands.” Yet the powers that be did not seem to act on this startling claim. And, as the UK now shakes the money tree to avoid economic disaster, it’s pretty clear that the result of the pandemic will be more Government going forward, not less.
So, in the final analysis, the Preppers may have been right all along. It’s easy to laugh at those who talk of impending doom when every other year brings a shiny new iPhone, and Uber Eats is a click away. Yet the preparations of the Survivalists would no doubt have put them at a distinct advantage over you and me recently, even if their rabbit snares and water filtration systems remained in their packaging during the pandemic. At least they could wipe their bums.
My real issue with prepping is that it seems a lonely business. These men (and most of them are men, as I am sure you have figured out by now), seek to exert some form of control over the uncontrollable chaos that is life. It’s a fundamentally pointless endeavour. Preparing for the end times from their bedrooms, in Reddit forums or on woodcraft skills weekends in the New Forest must provide some form of therapy.
Survival is by definition a selfish business, of course, but prepping seems a particularly self-centred, myopic exercise. Worse, it’s a bizarre sect of the creed of sod-you individualism that has got us in our current pickle. It’s notable that the focal point for the residents of Perfection in Tremors is the local drugstore, where they share beers, swap stories and plan their attacks on the worms. It’s not Burt’s bunker.
A recent newspaper report featured a woman who talked of another form of prepping, where a community prepared for and handled hardship by coming together during the current crisis. Her street in a New York borough shared food and supplies and helped each other at the height of the pandemic. It’s been echoed to a certain extent here. Over the last few months, neighbours have left vegetables from their allotments on our doorstep and friends have sent care packages of crisps. We have shared a bottle or two of wine in return.
So while Governments clearly have a lot to learn from the Preppers, for the rest of us it’s perhaps less about preparing for bad times and more about dealing with them, and those caught up in them, with compassion when they come along. It’s not individualism, it’s community. It’s not preparing, but doing.