Coronavirus Special Coverage

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Here’s why some preppers are still dismissing COVID-19 as “media hype”

Glenn Beck, a longtime purveyor of survival food and precious metals to the prepper crowd, is urging his older followers to get back to work. Another preparedness-minded connection of mine, a prominent member of the firearm community, has been openly skeptical of the COVID-19 “hysteria” and recently warned those of us who follow him on Facebook that any politician who orders businesses closed is a “closet communist.”

Other people in my network who aren’t preppers are mystified that so many of the most seemingly prepared people in their own circles — the food stockpilers and proud gun owners and believers in the coming Boogaloo — are openly scoffing at the coronavirus “panic”.

What is it with these people,” I’m asked again and again. “Now that the doomsday* they’ve been planning for looks like it’s here, why won’t they even acknowledge it, or better yet, take a well-deserved victory lap?

I’ve heard so many triple-bank-shot psychosocial explanations offered for this phenomenon that I’ve lost track of them — a lot of stuff about politics, loyalty, tribalism, and denial.

But, as someone who has been prepping for over a decade and is now professionally in the preparedness community, I believe there are two things going on here, both of them very straightforward:

  • This phenomenon isn’t as common as it seems, as the percentage of preppers who are not taking this seriously is actually quite small. The vast majority are now on-board, regardless of political affiliation, even if some of them didn’t get there until the middle of March.
  • For the preppers who either initially insisted the virus was #FakeNews, or who are still clinging to that claim, the most likely explanation is one I’ve written about before: plain, old-fashioned normalcy bias. Preppers are just as prone to normalcy bias as normies are, it’s just that their definition of “normal” is a bit different than everyone else’s.

*Side note: This isn’t “doomsday.” While COVID is really bad and definitely in the realm of what preppers prepare for, this is still not the 50-million-dead scenario many experts believe we’ll see in our lifetime — something more akin to the Contagion film (one of the best prepper movies). And even if it gets a lot closer to a classic doomsday scenario than we think it will, we’re still not gloating. It’s better to roll out the red carpet to new people rather than give a snide “I told you so!”

The virus truthers are few but loud

If you know where to look, you can certainly find preppers who think this whole coronavirus thing is a communist plot. And of course, there’s the aforementioned spectacle of prepper prince Glenn Beck telling us all to shake it off and get back out there.

Those kinds of people have always been on the fringes, though. And when I look around dozens of various social media and private groups, I’m just not seeing more than relatively isolated pockets of virus skepticism out there.

For example, James Wesley Rawles’s Survival Blog is one of the most well-established of the “classic” survivalist sites, and Rawles and his contributors are absolutely taking the pandemic seriously. There are certainly some commenters who still insist it’s all politics and panic, but these appear to be in the minority.

I also had a hard time turning up committed Virus Truthers in any of the hardcore doomer Facebook groups I investigated. Whenever someone does drop in a note of skepticism, they’re pretty quickly swarmed by folks insisting that, no, the threat is real.

My sense of even the fringe corners of the prepper community is that the focus of the conspiracy types has shifted to the bailouts and sudden limits on constitutional rights (especially the right to assemble), but as far as the virus itself is concerned, they’re donning an N95 along with the tinfoil hat these days.

Normalcy bias

There are a number of common cognitive biases that prevent people from responding appropriately when they find themselves in novel situations, but the worst one by far for disasters is normalcy bias.

When a prepared-for threat actually arrives at our doorstep and our normalcy bias kicks in, it’s natural that some of us respond by continuing to do exactly what we were doing before the disaster: slowly preparing, urging everyone around us to keep calm, and keeping our eyes fixed on some distant threat that’s just off the horizon

Normalcy bias is why tourists will often stand on a beach and gawk at the tide going out before a tsunami, and utterly fail to run for higher ground despite knowing intellectually that a tsunami is on its way. We expect the world to continue operating as it always has, and even when we know in our brains that reality has taken a sudden turn for the worse, we’re hard-wired by nature to keep on functioning as if everything is more or less ok.

For preppers, “normal” involves continuously preparing — shopping and training for some future threat.

So when a prepared-for threat actually arrives at our doorstep and our normalcy bias kicks in, it’s natural that some of us respond by continuing to do exactly what we were doing before the disaster: slowly preparing, urging everyone around us to keep calm, and keeping our eyes fixed on some distant threat that’s just off the horizon.

If you were a prepper for whom “normal”‘ means worrying about closeted communists conspiring to strip you of your civil liberties and bar you from going to church, then that’s’ the “normal” you’ll cling to in the face of coronavirus.

If your prepper “normal” means working hard at your day job and saving up to buy precious metals (or urging others to do the same) in anticipation of the collapse of “fiat currency”, then that’s exactly what you’ll be powerfully inclined to keep on doing in the present moment.

I’ve talked to our staff here at The Prepared, and many of us (myself included) are still experiencing some version of this prepper-specific flavor of normalcy bias. So this even effects level-headed experts.

When we look at the COVID-19 news, our gut reaction is to just keep on doing what we normally do — doing research, making lists, talking to experts, and generally acting as if the Bad Stuff is somewhere up ahead in the future, instead of right here at our feet. We all know intellectually not only how bad it is, but how bad it might yet get, but none of us have actually bugged out in an extreme way or activated other “extreme” preps — or even gotten our preps entirely organized and squared away.

Here are just a few things that have languished on my personal “To Do” list since this crisis started:

  • Re-pack the bug-out bags based on the specifics of this scenario and on our most up-to-date reviews and guides.
  • Make sure we have all our possessions documented for our home insurance provider, in case we leave suddenly and eventually come back to a looted wreck. (I don’t even think we have the right amount of home insurance, so that’s also on my list of things to sort out.)
  • Get all our critical documents, pictures, certificates, deeds, etc. together in one pile.
  • Finish our estate planning by locating and executing the will we had drawn up over a decade ago.
  • Set up the game cams closer to the house so I can catch anyone who may be scouting out the property.
  • Charge up all the rechargeable batteries I have laying in my “to charge” pile.
  • Sight in my rifles.
  • Figure out how to use the ham radio I bought.

In short, if it involves doing much more than what I normally do as a prepper — eg. buy a bunch of food and other supplies, keep close tabs on the news, and talk to people about prepping — then I probably have not gotten around to it. Still.

Preppers are human, too, so cut them some slack

As you’re looking at your Facebook feed or watching the news, and seeing a handful of people who have made a big show of preparing for the world to take a dark turn suddenly insist that this deadly pandemic is actually no big deal, try to have some sympathy for the clear cognitive bias on display.

Just because these people have spent their time preparing doesn’t mean they’re prepared. Just because they’ve invested a lot in getting ready for The Big One doesn’t mean they’re capable of responding rationally to The Big One — or even a Not Quite The Big One — when it actually hits.

We’re all human, and we all carry the same evolutionary baggage, regardless of our politics and pastimes. So cut the stragglers some slack and know that even they will probably come around eventually.


    • Bad Karma

      So much truth here.

      It’s easy to dismiss any particular high profile prepper for a variety of reasons (personal beliefs and biases obviously come into play here), but Mr. Rawles has been uncannily accurate regarding predictions on many important topics. Those who own a copy of his book “How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It” should re-read Appendix C at the back of the book.

      I think many preppers (yes, even so-called “hardcore” ones) have had various levels of fantasies regarding what “it” would be like, but they could always focus on adding food, water, guns/ammo, skills, etc. because reality was far away. Now that a global threat is staring them in the face, reality has come knocking and some don’t want to open the door. Now the fear and self-doubt creeps in. “Have I done enough?” is running through the mind of many. “We are what we do” – we are creatures of habit, and do not like the unknown, especially on this scale, when so much is at stake.

      Be like the Dachshund, my friends.

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      • texasboyshaun Bad Karma

        “Be like the dachshund” indeed! I’m an underdog who knows how to fight and prepping has helped me so much. My mantra through life has been that even though the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, it was the small mammals who survived and thrived off the ruins. I’ll be the dachshund and not the T-Rex any day.

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    • Matt Harding

      So you’re planning to illegally use the ham radio? In which case you should probably get a license just to familiarize yourself with how they operate… Or at least act like you are, get a study guide at the least.

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      • Jon StokesStaff Matt Harding

        Not sure how you got that I’m planning to do anything illegal with a ham radio out of that post.  I can legally can receive but not transmit, so I need to learn the basics and also plan to get a license. Also, we have a good set of ham resources on the site, which I linked to in the post.

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      • Matt Harding Jon Stokes

        The post implies you aren’t qualified to operate a ham radio yet own one, so that’s like saying you just bought a car and you intend to learn how to use it; no one would automatically think you WERENT going to operate it before you were qualified to do so. Not only that but having it and not knowing the operation just further enables you to use it improperly/illegally without knowing any better. Also I’m sure buying it before learning anything about them made it an informed purchase, but YOU’RE the professional here…

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      • Cia Matt Harding

        Who cares?

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