Chaotic leadership vs calm public: how reality was different from Contagion's plotlines, says Chris Nineham
The fascinating thing about watching Contagion in Corona time is that you are watching a disaster movie about your own predicament. It’s not surprising that it has been the most popular lockdown film. In case you missed out, it is a 2011 Hollywood disaster movie that predicted the current pandemic with stunning scientific accuracy. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it tells the story of a deadly virus that emerged from bats in China and spread rapidly around the world, causing flu-like symptoms in humans that quickly became deadly.
One of the film’s main concerns is the importance and difficulty of discovering the truth about people’s lives and movements. As one critic commented, ‘the movie is as much about the way disease gets amplified by people’s relationships to the truth, as it is about viral transmission’.
But unlike many films in its genre, Contagion’s main aim is not so much to explore collective anxieties or to make allegorical points about the state of the world. It is more of political or social intervention, a direct warning about an imminent danger.
Director Steven Soderbergh and his team pulled together an impressive cast including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet and worked with leading international scientists and health experts to research the film. It adopts an almost documentary format, drawing together many different strands in a kind of hyperlink style.
This realism reinforces the feeling that we should have been much better prepared for the COVID 19 outbreak. If Hollywood could collaborate with scientists to predict the disaster in 2011 in such scientific detail, what have our governments been doing?
As the Coronavirus crisis has unfolded however, the film’s wider predictive power has looked more shaky, for all its urgency and foresight on medical matters. The truth is, despite its disaster/thriller genre, the film doesn’t really address the most disturbing single thing about the whole real-world episode. In the film the US government is caught off guard, responds slowly, and is a little bureaucratic, but it is essentially trying to deal rationally with the pandemic.
In the real world many governments, including those of the UK and the US, have displayed not just incompetence but barefaced resistance to doing what needs to be done. In Britain the Tories were forced late in the day to take measures to protect the public. But they have never fully cast off their initial enthusiasm for herd immunity – letting the virus rip – a policy summarised by Dominic Cumming’s notorious comment, ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.
In the US the situation is of course even worse. In the film a crank blogger is the main source of disinformation. In the real USA the biggest obstacle to grasping the reality of the situation has been the government itself. Donald Trump has drifted from denial and fantasy, ‘one day, like a miracle, it will disappear’, to tragi-comic US boosterism, ‘the world is relying on us’. In the film it is the blogger who promotes a bogus cure for the virus. Back in the world it was the president of the United States who has encouraged people first to take an anti-malaria drug and then inject disinfectant as a COVID cure. In the film the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) directs what is eventually an effective campaign. In reality, the CDC has ‘vanished from view’ according to one Washington insider. Even leading bleach companies issued statements contradicting Donald Trump’s deadly advice. The CDC was virtually silent.
Like so many dystopian films, Contagion predicts that viral catastrophe will strip away the thin veil of civilisation, exposing the majority of the population as selfish animals, ready to rob, riot, and kill to save our skins until the experts and officials get a grip on the situation.
Reality has stood these assumptions on their head. What the real-life pandemic has revealed is a spirit of co-operation, compassion, and solidarity displayed by the overwhelming majority of the population and in particular workers on the frontline. Mostly, people have clapped, helped their neighbours and joined unions, not rioted. It’s actually been those in charge who have behaved with lethal self-interest. Many big corporations have made a mint from the pandemic (and are lobbying right now to avoid a windfall tax). Contempt mixed with careerism and self-interest have dominated in the corridors of power. On both sides of the Atlantic scientists prepared to speak out have been sacked or side-lined.
Shockingly, the reality of pandemic is worse than Contagion imagined. The virus has exposed the nightmare that many governments and corporations are so in thrall to profit that they systematically prioritise wealth over health. Luckily it has also shown that most people have other ideas, and are prepared to do something about it.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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