World War Z: The Morality of Phalanx

When I first came across Breckinridge “Breck” Scott’s story, I was appalled.   Breck was the man behind the Phalanx vaccine that claimed to prevent the “African Rabies.” While it may have been true that his vaccine really did prevent rabies, it was ineffective for preventing the zombie plague. With the help of the FDA, doctors, congressmen, and the White House, he was able to make money from a misinformed and desperate public. His eagerness to prosper from a situation of panic, fear, and uncertainty felt deeply immoral to me. Moreover, his unapologetic attitude and his crude mockery of those who believed in Phalanx worsened my impression of him and strengthened his image as an unscrupulous profit-seeker. Breck’s capitalization of people’s fear is comparable to much of the weight loss industry, which is largely reliant on the misinformation surrounding exercise and nutrition. The industry essentially sells hope to desperate people, which reveals a downfall of the capitalist system but also exposes the power of fear and desperation to cloud people’s rational judgment and tendency to scrutinize bold claims.

However after reading his story, I felt increasingly ambivalent. Breck argues that he was selling a sense of safety and protecting people from their fears. Because of Phalanx sales, the biomed sector began to recover, restoring consumer confidence and boosting the economy. People could continue living their everyday lives, even if it was under a false sense of security. Breck argues that the once drug was revealed as a hoax, people started to panic and all stability was lost.

Breck’s situation raises important questions about weighing the costs of exposing the hard truth versus the benefits of hope. The truth was that there was no vaccine or cure to the zombie plague. However, when this truth entered public knowledge after having the hope of an effective vaccine, it caused a massive panic.

Did Phalanx actually benefit the American public by giving them more time to continue their everyday existences and function as a society?

While Breck sold Phalanx solely for his personal gain, the involvement of congressmen and White House could suggest that they knowingly approved the fake drug, actively choosing to create a sense of security and safety for the good of the people rather than undermining stability. This situation reminds me of the Hong Kong reaction to SARS in 2003, which caused a massive economic recession, as schools and offices were closed down. The reaction was ultimately not proportional to the actual threat it posed. While downplaying the threat of the zombie plague had detrimental consequences in this case, from a politician’s point of view, perhaps there is value in remaining calm, assessing the situation rationally, and emphasizing order and stability.

World War Z examines the nature of fear in times of crisis. Throughout the book, we are presented with scenes of people buying guns, stocking up on food, taking Phalanx, and being prepared to run or fight at any moment. These scenes reveal the fragility of the global system and how easily the laws and norms of society are abandoned in the face of an uncertain danger.  Moreover, they remind us of our primitive “fight or flight” instincts and how easily we resort to herd mentality. As readers, we realized that fear and panic are not rational emotions and serve to guarantee our survival. This conclusion reinforces Breck’s comment that, “Now I understand why it used to be illegal to shout fire in a crowded theatre” (57). Breck’s story helps us realize the importance of formulating an effective crisis management strategy that is proportional to the threat posed.

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