Compared to Contagion, citizens are doing much better, politicians much worse

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The cast of 2011 pandemic-flick Contagion reunited last week to mark the outbreak of COVID-19 and spread public health messages. It felt weird. Will every new disaster provoke the reunion of the relevant disaster film’s cast? Devastating tsunami? Here’s Ewan McGregor from The Impossible! Shark attack? Here’s Richard Dreyfuss!

It was weird, too, that British actress Jennifer Ehle did her public service video in an American accent, as if she was still playing her role. Now that’s method — she stayed in character for nine years.

Even weirder, Kate Winslet told us that, to prepare for her role, she had actually consulted with a real live epidemiologist, and that epidemiologist had given her expert advice on the best way to behave during a pandemic. And the advice is (looks around, leans towards camera) wash your hands.

Wow. Thanks Kate. While you’re here, any advice on how to survive the sinking of a cruise ship? Only one person per raft, you say?

It reminded me of Ross Kemp in Extras, sharing his inside information on the SAS with Ricky Gervais.

Anyway, I was inspired to watch Contagion this week. It wasn’t the most relaxing evening viewing, I grant you, but it was kind of thrilling, in a sick way.

I finally felt I got a sense of the global scale of the pandemic, from watching a movie. Our news tends to focus so much on the national, on what is happening in Westminster or Washington, on Hancock’s Half-Hour (he’s the UK’s health minister). One can struggle to get a sense of how this is playing out across the world — mass migration in India, or the president of the Philippines ordering troops to shoot quarantine-breakers.

Contagion gives you a sense of that global scale. It’s about a respiratory virus that emerges from a Chinese wet market, leaping from a bat to a pig to a human, then spreading right around the world in weeks. You watch it go from hand to mobile phone to hand to glass to hand to peanut bowl to hand to bus door to China to Japan then the US.

In Contagion, the virus is far deadlier than COVID-19 — it kills one in four, very quickly through some sort of encephalitis. Governments and the World Health Organisation desperately try to find patient zero, but as with COVID-19 it’s far too late. So countries move into ‘social distancing’ measures, and then lockdowns.

In many ways, then, it’s eerily familiar. But in some ways it’s different.

First, the action revolves around the Centre for Disease and Prevention in the United States. They basically save the day — Jennifer Ehle finds a vaccine in six months, by heroically injecting herself, and life goes back to normal. You never see a head of state in the entire movie. Science is the hero, and politics is more or less invisible.

Well, we know how that played out differently in reality. Donald Trump put an evangelical Christian in charge of it. When he visited CDC last month, they bowed and said how great he was and how thankful they were for visiting him, while he said maybe he should have been a doctor. It’s Pyongyang on the Potomac, as one analyst quipped. Twitter and Facebook have had to delete messages from world leaders because they’re spreading misinformation. As another public health expert put it, ‘in all my years preparing for a pandemic, I never thought the government would be actively undermining our scientific advice’.

Second, in Contagion, law and order breaks down almost instantly. I guess people sitting at home doing online pub quizzes is less exciting, from a cinematic point of view, than rioting in the streets. We’ll see how public behavior evolves as the lockdown continues and the economic pain really bites. But right now, the public response in western countries has been remarkably quiescent.

Third, in Contagion fake news spreads much more quickly online. The villain of the film is a British blogger played by Jude Law, who is slapped down with the line ‘you’re not a journalist, you’re a blogger’. Ouch! He spreads news of a false cure called Forsythia, made from Bruce Forsyth’s chin (or not). Sales of it go through the roof. There have been some snake-oil salesmen promoting false cures during COVID-19 — Alex Jones from Infowars, for example — but on the whole, I get the sense western publics are being quite responsible in the self-regulation of information online (I may be wrong on this).

Fourth, what Contagion captures really well is the lockdown of love. Matt Damon’s teenage daughter is constantly trying to snog her boyfriend, and a shotgun-wielding Damon is constantly having to pull him off her, like they were two dogs on heat.

In the last scene of the movie, the boyfriend gets vaccinated so he can come round to snog the daughter — he proudly shows his vaccination bracelet at their door, in the creepiest romcom moment ever. ‘I’ve been scientifically certified, let’s breed!’ (Here’s the scene…in Spanish for some reason).

Still, it’s captures something we now all know — there’s the lockdown of the economy, and there’s the lockdown of our natural mammalian desire to get together, hug, dance, snog. It sucks for me, as a 40-something bachelor who is used to his own company and probably has a declining libido. It must suck big time if you’re a horny teenager. I don’t see this lockdown lasting through the summer.

The penultimate lesson I took from Contagion, other than ‘don’t eat peanuts in a bar’ and ‘if you cheat on Matt Damon you will get your head cut open and your brain removed’, was this: the pandemic was predictable. A lot of people saw it coming. It was obvious. And the West didn’t prepare for it at all.

Leading epidemiologist Larry Brilliant — an advisor to Contagion — warned about it in his TED talk in 2005. Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Coming Plague, warned about it in a 2005 article in Foreign Affairs, writing of ‘the catastrophe that the United States would face in a severe flu pandemic’, with millions dead and ‘unimaginable economic costs’.

Also in 2005, Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, wrote in a Foreign Affairs article: “This is a critical point in history. Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose.” He repeated this message in his 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. Bill Gates warned of a devastating flu-like pandemic in a TED talk in 2015 called ‘The Next Outbreak? We’re not ready’.

You can see the countries who prepared — Asian developed economies like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. They were hit by SARS, MERS and Swine Flu, and they learned the lessons, both the governments and the general public. We used to laugh at them wearing face masks on the Tube. Not anymore.

This from Wired magazine:

When Covid-19 came around, Singapore was, it seems, ready. Along with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, Singapore instituted strict travel controls and protocols for identifying sick individuals — to get them help as well as to find the people they’d been in contact with.

This is from a journalist in quarantine in Singapore:

I am on day 10 of my strict 14 day quarantine in Singapore after my husband was hospitalized in a Singaporean hospital for COVID-19. Three times a day, every day, the Ministry of Health makes a video call to us on Whats App to verify we are in our home and to record our temperature with the thermometers they issued each of us on Day 1 of our quarantine. Should our temperature reach 99.5 F (37.5C), we are to call a designated number and an ambulance will be sent to collect us.

Singapore and South Korea both started mass-producing COVID19 tests in January, two months before the UK government woke up to the importance of mass testing and suddenly tried to get hold of the chemicals to make them. That’s why Singapore and South Korea have been able to keep their bars, restaurants and economies open — mass testing, and mass surveillance.

Meanwhile, western economies are in total lockdown, and are facing the biggest economic depression since 1930. Ten million people became unemployed in America in a week.

The final lesson I took from Contagion was: it will happen again. We’ve had SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu and now this, all within two decades. COVID-19 is the greatest crisis we have faced since World War Two, but in many ways it’s a preparation for a much more lethal pandemic. We will be much better prepared for the next pandemic, of course, but I suddenly felt the fragility of our civilization and the reality of the odds against us.

I think we all now feel that fragility, and see that everything we take for granted can change in a week. Maybe that will help us take the existential risks from climate change more seriously rather than blandly assuming the status quo will never end.

It’s felt like we’ve been in the Age of Emergency for a while. It requires a stronger state to defend us against the threats we face from the natural world — floods, droughts, food shortages, pandemics. It’s an unnerving prospect — an all-powerful bio-state, controlling our food, work, health, travel, deciding who lives and dies, perhaps even who reproduces. How will we all make a living in this bio-state?

Well…maybe there’s no point looking too far ahead right now. Right now I’m just dreaming of going to a pub, meeting friends, talking about stupid shit rather than mortality rates. I dream of a pint and a hug. No peanuts, thank you.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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