“Nothing spreads like fear”
That was the tagline of the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, an ensemble cast look at what would happen if the worst fears of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Heath Organization were ever to occur.
It’s an older film that suddenly started trending on online video rental services. Why? Well, it has parallels to today’s news.
In the film, a mysterious virus has reached the United States after a business woman (Gwenyth Paltrow) returns from China. The virus spreads fast and one-in-four of those infected ended up dead, with a cinematically gruesome image of people slumped over, foaming at the mouth.
But the biggest threat in this movie isn’t the virus itself. It’s the mass chaos and confusion among the general public, leading to rioting, emptied stores, desolate streets and masked intruders breaking into homes trying to get hold of the vaccine.
With the recent news about the Coronavirus, I decided to rewatch this film from nearly a decade ago to see if Soderbergh made any accurate predictions and if there’s something we can learn from this movie.
First off, I’m not saying the Coronavirus will turn into a worldwide pandemic and kill millions of people. But I don’t want to downplay the severity of the virus either.
In the movie, one character cites the fact that Spanish Influenza killed 40 to 50 million people worldwide in 1918 which was about 2 percent of the world population.
The Coronavirus itself isn’t that widespread. There have been 88,000 reported cases worldwide and about 3,000 reported deaths, as of March 2.
But there’s a lesson to learn from Spanish Influenza. One of the main reasons it spread is World War I was occuring and Britain, France, Germany and other European governments kept it a secret because they didn’t want to hand the other side a potential advantage. Spain — a neutral country in this war — was 100 percent transparent and a result they got unfairly labeled as the originator. That’s where the nickname came from.
The message is that hiding the severity of a disease can be catastrophic.
In Soderbergh’s fim, Laurence Fishburne plays a doctor with the CDC who grapples with the tough decision about what and when to tell the public about this spreading virus.
“Nobody should know until everybody knows,” advises a general played by Bryan Cranston.
They fear a run on the banks, a crashing stock market and soaring gas prices. Fishburne breaks ethical protocal by secretly telling a friend to flee the Chicago area, which was about to be locked down under quarantine as a early site of infection.
When they do go public, a panic ensues.
It takes months to develop a vaccine, a time period that seems like an eternity to the characters in the film, but it actually might have been faster than what’s realistic. News reports says it could take a year to 18 months to get a Coronavirus vaccine on the market.
When the vaccine is created, there’s not a enough for everyone. The State Department suggests dumping it into the water supply like fluoride. Instead, the CDC has a lottery and literally pulls ping palls out of a hopper and reads out birthdates to find out which half of the population will be inoculated and which half will have to wait another six months.
Jude Law plays a prominent blogger who constantly reminds people that he has 12 million unique visitors to his Web site. He’s a skeptic — bordering on conspiracy theorist — who distrusts the U.S. government and says he’s come up with his own homeopathic cure to this virus. Fishburne debates him on a TV news program, telling the public that his fear mongering is dangerous.
“What he’s spreading is far more dangerous than any disease,” he said.
Law plans to tell his Web site visitors to not take the vaccine, leading the U.S. government to arrest him on trumped up charges to keep him away from his laptop.
Interestingly enough, I saw one report where a TV host claimed that ingesting silver would cure the Coronavirus. There is no medical proof to support that. Talk show host John Oliver played this same clip and joked that the only reason to ingest silver is if you have miniature werewolves living in your body.
So what lessons can we learn from this movie?
For one, almost all governments — across the globe — are woefully unprepared for a massive pandemic that spreads quickly. The layers of bureaucracy don’t lend themselves to nimble action.
If you want tips about preventing the spread of disease, I guess don’t touch your face. It’s a joke made a few times in the movie but it’s very true.
Kate Winslet plays a CDC investigator who says that average human touches their face 2,000 times a day and in between touching your face you are touching door knobs, hand rails, table counters, etc. We don’t wash our hands every time we touch something but we do touch our faces a lot.
One CDC researcher says to Winslet, “My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything with hand santizer after I leave. I mean, she’s overreacting, right?”
“Not really,” Winslet responds. “And stop touching your face, Dave.”
Finally, I think the real lesson from this movie is the power of fear and misinformation. We’re seeing that already. Stores are sold out of masks and they’re selling on Ebay for insane amounts. People are calling 911 because they saw a Chinese person walking down the street. Sales of Corona beer have plummeted because some people are stupid enough to think that’s how the get the disease. It’s pretty crazy.
This is a big spoiler but the movie ends with us finding out how the virus came to be. Previously in the film, researchers identify bat and pig DNA in the virus, joking that “Somewhere the wrong bat came in contact with the wrong pig.”
Interestingly enough, some think that Coronavirus originated from the Chinese eating bat soup and one Fox News commentator went off about it. I’m not making this up.
At the end of the movie, we see Paltrow eating dinner at a restaurant in China. Her construction company — which is why she is overseas — has a bulldozer knock down some trees and bats fly out. They land in a pig pen, infecting the pigs. One of the pigs is delivered to a restaurant and the chef touches the pig’s mouth and then just wipes his hands on his apron before shaking Paltrow’s hand and posing for a picture.
One instance of a person not washing their hands and then millions die from a virus.
Yes, it’s just a movie but it makes you really want to wash your hands more often.