The Current

Doomsday preppers expect the worst, but not the kindness we've seen in COVID-19 pandemic, says author

Author Mark O’Connell wrote a book about doomsday preppers and what motivates them — only to find himself reviewing his notes as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Preppers expect people to turn on each other, not come together: Mark O’Connell

A woman paints a thank you message to nurses and doctors on a boarded-up shop in Vancouver last week. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Read Story Transcript

Doomsday preppers may have stockpiles ready to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, but they won't have been prepared for how people have come together during the outbreak, according to one author.

"Preppers tend to see civilization as a very fragile sort of construct, as a thin veneer of society over a sort of an abyss of human nature, which is — by its nature — savagery," said Mark O'Connell, Dublin-based author of a new book called Notes from the Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.

"The context might be a global pandemic or it might be a nuclear attack, but the real threat, the immediate threat is people, is society itself, the collapse of civilization," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, O'Connell said "that's something that we're absolutely not seeing."

"Certainly where I am, people are behaving with real dignity and civility and care for people, for the most part."

Scenes from around the world as people applaud health-care workers

3 years ago
Duration 0:45
Applause breaks out in places across the globe in appreciation of health-care workers fighting against the coronavirus.

He pointed to the example of people cheering and banging pots and pans from their windows, as a daily recognition of the work being done by frontline health-care workers.

By contrast, O'Connell said those around the world who prep for disaster are often driven to do so by a distrust of authority.

"They tend to believe that government does not have people's best interests in mind and that, furthermore, the government believes and knows that something is in the offing and is not telling people about it," he said.

Those threats include "a spread of anxieties" from nuclear strikes to terrorists that disrupt daily life.

O'Connell said he appreciates the "dramatic irony" of writing a book on doomsday prepping that's being published just as the world turns to extreme measures to combat COVID-19.

"Everyone wants their book to be topical, but I would personally prefer a level of topicality where bookstores were still open," he joked.

'We told you so'

After the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic saw panic buying on everything from toilet paper to guns and ammunition, O'Connell suspects some doomsday preppers may be thinking "we told you so."

The trouble with panic buying during an outbreak

3 years ago
Duration 2:07
Unfounded fears of shortages amid an outbreak of COVID-19 have Canadians buying up supplies.

"I would not be surprised if there was a certain degree of smugness there, and maybe, you know, [it's] well-earned in a sense."

In recent weeks, he's returned to the doomsday prepper books and manuals he read while researching his own book, with what he called "something other than scholarly interests, something other than that kind of ironic detachment."

Ultimately though, he's finding strength in the crisis among his community, not by fortifying himself away from those around him.

"Having people around who are willing to help other people is a very important thing," he said. 

"That's not something that you get from preppers. I think that their sense is that you've got to go out on your own. It's every man for himself."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?