Contagion: A Harbinger For Our Time

 

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.

Infections

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.

Deployments

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.

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Inheritors

In the Planet Of The Apes film series, humanity’s simian relatives have inherited the Earth in the far future. It’s a fascinating premise, that humankind currently the dominant life form will one day be supplanted. This goes back as early as with H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, where that book’s narrator time travels to the distant future to find that humans no longer exist.

However with The Time Machine and the Apes films, the future rulers of the Earth are related to us. In the case of Wells’ story, humanity evolved into two distinct species the predatory Morlocks and the cattle-minded Eloi. But is this what will happen? Who is to say that our evolutionary branch will continue to dominate the world? For all we know, the eventual rulers will be based upon other animal species currently sharing the world with us. Or they could be something else. Let’s look at some candidates in a post-human world.

Rodents

There’s a good case to be made that some kind of rodent will dominate the world. They are a hardy species able to survive in just about in every environment. Rats are notoriously difficult to eradicate since they are very intelligent and durable. It’s easy to imagine a world where rodents become the dominant species. In Dougal Dixon’s book After Man: A Zoology Of The Future, a future Earth is presented where  rodent dog-like species called the falanx and bear-like bardelots are the top predators. Rodents have also filled other ecological niches in this future world. So it’s easy to imagine how a sentient rodent species could arise from this environment further along into the future.

Insects

This is harder to imagine but not impossible. What impedes insects from becoming dominant life forms is the environment. Earth’s gravity and atmosphere prevent insects from ever growing very large. Over 400 million years ago in the Devonian Era insects grew into monsters because of Earth’s higher oxygen content and temperatures. If such conditions were to be repeated and if there aren’t any competitors then it’s conceivable that insects could rule the land again and from there possibly lead to sentient insects. The potential for insect intelligence already exists with social insects like bees, wasps and ants. The latter are excellent candidates with their complex social hierarchies. Compared to bees and wasps, ants are very common and one species, the driver ant in EastAfrica, is a true terror capable of killing small animals. Phase IV was a movie released in 1974 that was about a newly evolved species of ants that developed a hive intelligence and began supplanting humanity. It may be far-fetched given humanity’s resilience and other competitors but given the right conditions then the opportunity is there for the insects.

Artificial Intelligence

Pretty cut and dried, the Singularity arrives in a few decades or so, Skynet comes online, etc. Humanity is enslaved or exterminated by sentient computers and robots. There is no Neo or John Connor to the rescue. Who knows what the computers do after we’re gone? Maybe they find Earth too confining or completely strip its resources and leave for the stars. Afterwards the microbes that survive will eventually yield to complex life millions of years later. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the new top life forms will be.

Marine Mammals

Dolphins and whales come to mind but despite arguments about the level of their intelligence one important factor impeding their capability for social and technological advancement is their inability to manipulate their environment. They lack appendages that allow them to handle objects. Perhaps if some cetacean evolves to return to land they can develop ambidextrous hands. But that could happen instead to the pinnipeds, namely seals. As with the insects, much depends on environmental factors. A flooded Earth will do.

Reptiles

There could be a second age of reptiles that leads to new kinds of dinosaurs. It’s happened before so it can happen again. Only this time the reptiles or neo dinosaurs evolve into a sentient species. There are several sci-fi stories that present advanced dinosaurs with technology. Harry Harrison’s alternate history book trilogy West of Eden is a good example. In Stephen Baxter’s Evolution, readers are introduced to sapient dinosaurs. Star Trek: Voyager had an episode in the third season called “Distant Origin” that featured a reptilian alien race that turned out to be dinosaurs that left Earth millions of years ago. Of course no such beings have been found in the fossil records…yet. Then again dinosaurs ruled the Earth for millions of years and they included bipedal forms with complex claws but never developed sentience as far as we know.

The Rest

Other candidates include birds. They had their chance when the dinosaurs died out but mammals beat them to the punch. As with cetaceans their lack of manipulating limbs could’ve hindered them.  Perhaps an evolutionary throwback that reintroduces hand-like claws might do the trick. Pigs are reputedly very intelligent as are elephants. But with elephants they are on the verge of extinction, seeing them taking over is difficult. Pigs are versatile creatures  but lack manipulating organs unless their flexible snouts evolve into trunks giving them a chance. The list goes on, many animal species can be candidates for evolving into a sentient, sapient race. Frankly, there are many variables that can’t be completely accounted for so we’ll just stick with our imagination for now.

Lewis T. Grove