Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion has sadly become one of those quasi-science fiction films that became a reality. Of course, this relates to the coronavirus pandemic that has upended our global society.
The parallels between the film and what is going on right now are downright eerie and disturbing. However, there are distinct differences between Contagion and reality, especially later on in the film.
Contagion illustrated how the MEV-1 virus easily spread from China throughout the world as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a business trip in Hong Kong became patient zero, interacted with many people and infected them. Steven Soderbergh inspired direction discreetly showed how easy it was for the virus to spread as many shots lingered on surfaces touched by infected victims, which were then touched by others.
One way the film differed from reality is how quickly victims exhibited symptoms and the mortality rate. People infected with the fictional virus displayed harsh symptoms apparently overnight, though most likely this can be attributed to film editing. The timeframe shown in the beginning of Contagion has Beth Emhoff already sick when she arrived in the U.S. Careful observations showed that she had been ill for a few days, but we’re shocked when she dies horribly mere minutes into the film. These quick time jumps were shown of how other characters became ill and died. With the coronavirus the incubation period ranges from days to weeks and explains why the disease is more insidious and deadlier than the MEV-1 because many people are already infected but won’t show symptoms for some time. Meanwhile, they’re unwittingly spreading the virus. On the other hand, the MEV-1 virus had a mortality rate of 25 to 30 percent, which was dramatically worse than COVID-19. Imagine how much worse things would be if COVID-19 had that kind of mortality rate.
A similarity between Contagion and real life is with the deployment of military and medical services to combat the virus and maintain order. The film turned out to be accurate in its depiction for how the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mobilized to study and combat MEV-1. We are seeing this played out in real time as scientists and doctors race not only to find a vaccine but at least some kind of treatment. Unlike the film and fortunately for us, the intense medical efforts have opened up promising treatments and even vaccine tests. In Contagion, these breakthroughs did not happen until long months had passed. But before anyone reading this starts celebrating, bear in mind that trials and tests need to be completed and we are looking at a vaccine being ready anywhere from a year to eighteen months at the earliest. So for now prevention is the best defense; that includes being as clean as possible and social distancing (which was mentioned in Contagion as means of slowing the spread of the virus).
Even more distressful is the way Contagion portrays the chaos and breakdowns as the fictional MEV-1 virus ravages the world. Thankfully, we have not seen the mass riots, looting and lawlessness that take place later in the film. But we must heed these important warnings of what we face if the COVID-19 virus is not contained and continues spreading. Already healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse in a several places like Italy or are severely strained in many others.
Oddly enough, although Contagion presented the panicked buying of goods by people, the shortage of toilet paper did not seem to be an issue. All joking aside, we have to keep order and keep supplies running otherwise we will devolve into the widespread looting seen later in Contagion. This also goes for services. One of the most disturbing images from Contagion were those of littered and empty streets, and unchecked fires and crime. It just added to a feeling that society was breaking down. We already have the empty streets (thanks to the necessary stay-at-home mandates) but thankfully they are well maintained…for now.
Another oddity is that Contagion did not go into the economic impact of its virus, aside from the empty store shelves and irate customers in long lines. What is arguably more disturbing to many of us is how fragile our global economy is. With the shutdown of many businesses and job losses we are looking at a depression which will upend everything. The efforts to save the world economy was one avenue that Contagion could have examined.
One of the most insidious characters in the film was the blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a huckster and conspiracy nut in the vein of Alex Jones. He shamelessly hawked a homeopathic treatment for MEV-1 which did not work and added to the misinformation fed to the public. This is paralleled with irresponsible leaders today who downplayed the coronavirus and gave many people a false sense of security. What this did is exacerbate the spread of the virus and now we’re feeling the effect. Jones himself was also selling quack products that supposedly prevented being infected by COVID-19, which he later denied. Thankfully these type of ludicrous claims from other charlatans have not become widespread or easily accepted, yet.
A sort of comfort to take is that at the end of Contagion, society does not collapse, it recovers, not just thanks to the healthcare workers who treated the sick and sought a cure, but because of the efforts of everyday people. One such person was Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband. We see impact of the virus in this flawed, ordinary man who struggles to protect his daughter and home. His quiet examples of decency and adherence to morality best represented the resilience and goodness of humankind. He is an example of how we should behave in these times.
Unlike other diseases shown in popular sci-fi films, TV shows, books and other media, the MEV-1 isn’t some kind of exotic virus that mutates people or turns them into zombies. In a simpler time, those stories were cautionary tales and speculations about society that were fascinating as abstract food for thought. These include I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, The Stand, 12 Monkeys and many others. They’re still great but now, it is difficult to view them in the same way as before. It should be noted that the virus we’re fighting with is not anywhere near as deadly as those shown in the fictional works. Even Stephen King reminded us that the coronavirus is not as severe as the Captain Trips disease in The Stand.
More important to consider is that Contagion showed us that in the end we will survive and perhaps come out of the experience a bit wiser. We can also look to our past history when humanity faced other pandemics like the Spanish flu and persevered.
Remember for now, let’s do our part by social distancing from one another and washing our hands.