Contagion: Predicting A Pandemic

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This month I was going to review the second installment of “A Quiet Place,” but going to see a film is unfortunately out of the question due to the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, I thought I would review one the many pandemic films that have been made. Unsurprisingly, films like “World War Z” and “Outbreak” are currently topping the YouTube rental charts. I chose “Contagion,” as it is widely considered to be the most scientifically accurate of its genre.

Despite its breakneck pace and A-list cast, “Contagion” strikes me as more of an educational film about pandemics than a cinematic masterpiece. That being said, education is exactly what we need right now, and it’s worth a watch. Gwyneth Paltrow stars as a patient zero who inadvertently picks up a new virus that originated in China and swiftly spreads it to the United States. Her husband (Matt Damon) loses both his wife and stepson to violent encephalitis brought on by the disease, and he quarantines himself with his daughter in an effort to save their lives. Within a matter of weeks, the virus has spread around the globe, and epidemiologists race to try and find a vaccine.

What “Contagion” Gets Right

  • • Reluctance from Officials: Early on in the epidemic, a scientist (Kate Winslet) warns a mayor at the center of an infection cluster that she must shut down schools and take drastic measures to stop the spread. The mayor complains that her town was forced to “overreact” to the swine flu, and that she “doesn’t want people to panic.” Winslet tries to explain that the virus spreads on an exponential curve, and taking precautions early is critical.
  • • Crossover Events: The fictional virus of “Contagion” crossed over first from a bat to a pig, then to a human. This can happen; COVID-19 is thought to have possibly crossed over from a bat, pangolin or civet.
  • • Tracing of Early Patients: An official from the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) reviews footage from a casino where Paltrow’s character spent a night, and traces which patients came into contact with her. The WHO recommends early contact tracing - if this is done vigilantly enough, you can often quarantine the few who have been exposed before the virus explodes. In the movie and in real life, this was not done in time and the virus spread beyond the point it could be contained.
  • • Conspiracy Theorists - Jude Law plays a conspiracy theorist who spreads dangerous misinformation, hypothesizing that perhaps the virus was government-made or that the cure (which he claims is an essential flower oil) is being hidden from the people. Some people online are currently theorizing that this virus is an act of Chinese bioterrorism. The Chinese must not be good at this, considering how many Chinese people coronavirus has killed.

What “Contagion” Gets Wrong

  • • Competent Governments and Rapid Medical Response: The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control work like well-oiled machines in “Contagion,and the government listens to them. The president is quick to take action, and the military is brought in early to help treat the sick. Huge makeshift hospitals are set up in gymnasiums and conference centers with lightning speed. The people in “Contagion” are so focused on accountability, they even put a CDC authority (Laurence Fishburne) on trial for disclosing to his wife that the virus has spread before it was announced to the public (thereby using his position of power to unjustly benefit his family). In reality, we have seen disjointed government response across the world, a flurry of misinformation, and a reluctance to implement the measures so necessary to contain this pandemic. We have seen a lack of accountability (“I don’t take responsibility at all,” President Donald Trump said on March 13), a scrambling to get the necessary health equipment, and a shortage of beds, ventilators, protective equipment and doctors.
  • • Vaccines - The vaccine in “Contagion” comes out ridiculously fast. Jennifer Ehle’s character decides to sacrificially try the vaccine on herself, thereby jumping to the “human trial” phase more quickly. In reality, we already have some human trials for the COVID-19 vaccine. It is going to take a long time before authorities determine any vaccine safe for public use. Perhaps they would roll it out without precautions if COVID-19 were as deadly as the virus in “Contagion,” but as it stands, we won’t see a vaccine until early 2021 in all likelihood. Patients also take the vaccine in “Contagion” and are immediately immune. In reality, they would have to wait a few weeks before being completely protected.

What “Contagion” Left Out

  • • The stockpiling: I don’t blame Steven Soderbergh for not anticipating that the human race, when faced with a global pandemic, would stockpile all the toilet paper. While there’s a few scenes of people fighting over Forsythia, the supposed “cure” for the virus that Jude Law peddles, nothing is mentioned about food, hand sanitizer or toilet paper shortages.
  • • The Enforced Lockdowns: While you see people blocked from leaving their counties or states in “Contagion,” and you see people hiding on their own will in their homes, there is no enforced lockdown of the streets. New York seems days away from lockdown, and Spain, France, Italy and the UK are now on lockdown - people are only permitted to leave their homes for essential reasons.

Overall, “Contagion” is worth a watch and is very educational. Keep safe, everyone. Stay inside and wash your hands!

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