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Our Pandemic: 10 Years After "Contagion"

[Disclaimer: This article is filled with my opinions and links to relevant articles. However, I may directly state facts about the pandemic, such as mentioning COVID-19 statistics. In that case, I will be sure to link sources from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), or another reputable organization.]

On September 9, 2011, Contagion was released, starring many big names including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwenyth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, and Jude Law, to name a few. The zoonotic virus in Contagion’s fictional pandemic is named “MEV-1.” Like Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie shocks its viewers by killing off Paltrow’s character less than 10 minutes into the film, as the virus’s first victim. Kate Winslet also dies not very far into the film, playing a doctor in charge of contact-tracing the infected Paltrow’s recent interactions. This movie experienced a recent surge of popularity in 2020. There are certainly some eerie similarities between this fictional pandemic and today that may have provided a sense of comfort to people in 2020. At the start of Contagion, the camera zooms in on infected people carrying on with their everyday lives in public: spreading the virus by sharing bowls of peanuts at a bar, touching poles on public transportation, passing water glasses, hugging, or shaking hands in greeting. As the pandemic gains prominence, masks normalize, talk increases of contact tracing and the R0 (“R-naught” is a virus’s rate of transmission), travel restrictions are imposed, people use the 1918 Spanish flu as a reference, and doctors work tirelessly. Later on, there are scenes of the transition to “normal”: being vaccinated and safely shaking someone’s hand again, hugging others, dating and socializing in-person again, and makeshift vaccination tents created in stadiums and other large public places.

While the story from ten years ago is fictional, it is oddly realistic. Americans started watching Contagion more often, not because we necessarily enjoyed switching off the news to entertain ourselves with extra pandemic-related content, but because we were desperate for guidance in such uncertain times. We craved seeing how relatable everyday humans could not only cope with but also rise above, an unimaginable catastrophe. While Kate Winslet warned her family against watching Contagion, there was a significant rise in people paying money in 2020 to watch a film about people surviving a pandemic. In addition, director Steven Soderbergh controversially announced that he would create a “philosophical sequel” to Contagion. While some look forward to what this will entail, critics, wonder if Soderbergh’s new cinematic inspiration is taking advantage of people’s suffering. While I will not tackle the ethical beast of debating whether or not Soderbergh is making a good moral decision by announcing Contagion’s sequel during a pandemic (he’s not), I will explore the similarities between the 2011 film and today’s world. I aim to shed light on why at-home moviegoers last year found a sense of comfort in watching a movie about a pandemic during one of the most turbulently dividing and unifying years in human history.

Like COVID-19, the fictional MEV-1 virus is a zoonotic virus traced back to China, likely spread by wet markets. Also, like COVID-19, the virus is linked to climate change. In the film, MEV-1 originates with deforestation; an infected bat flees his chopped down tree, sits above a pig farm, and eats a banana. The banana partly falls into a pigpen below. While we cannot say climate change directly caused COVID-19, we know deforestation for agricultural purposes is a root cause of animal habitat loss, and habitat loss can lead to pandemics. As the planet warms, aquatic and terrestrial animals head to the Earth’s poles to get out of the heat. Animals that usually would not come into contact with each other are now creating an opportunity for viruses to enter new hosts.

In some ways, our pandemic was more upsetting than MEV-1. That’s primarily due to people, not the virus. In Contagion, saying people were desperate for a vaccine would be a gross understatement. A doctor’s wife is violently mugged for vaccines, people riot for medical supplies that they believe are a cure, and a WHO doctor in China is kidnapped by a village demanding VIP access to vaccines. So how was our situation worse? Get ready for my strong pandemic opinion; we have healthy, eligible Americans with the nerve and privilege to reject free access to multiple kinds of COVID-19 vaccines for a range of non-science-based reasons. It’s burdening doctors, who are beginning to refuse to treat unvaccinated patients in some areas with frustratingly low vaccination rates.

Countless stories are being published of unvaccinated people on their hospital deathbeds regretting not just taking the vaccine. People in Contagion riot for access to vaccines (which they only waited 133 days for). Meanwhile, real-life Americans are holding violent protests over not wearing a piece of fabric over their mouths, let alone getting vaccinated. Companies have started charging extra fees for those who choose not to get vaccinated and then later see a doctor. Healthcare premiums are up to 50% higher for smokers than nonsmokers, and now being unvaccinated against COVID-19 is becoming a risk category as well. An individual’s personal decision not to be vaccinated has public costs. In June and July of 2021, vaccines could have prevented over 100,000 COVID-19 related hospitalizations and saved the U.S. health care system $2.3 billion.

Another significant piece to our pandemic that Contagion writers missed: the rise of racism and xenophobia. COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, and there has been a wave of hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment. Asian-owned restaurants lost support earlier and more severely than other restaurants have in the pandemic. Additionally, violent street attacks on Asian-Americans rose, as did reports of discrimination, according to the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center. This uptick in anti-Asian discrimination was partly fueled by misinformation and poor U.S government leadership. Our previous President of the United States repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus,” and “the China virus,” despite the WHO explicitly saying not to attach a disease to a location or ethnicity.

While this movie was released before social media became as rampant as it is today, Contagion does address the issue of misinformation through fictional conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede, who blogs about curing himself through a homeopathic remedy he sells. Unfortunately in real life, the President of the U.S. falsely proclaimed that we should consume bleach, and the virus would disappear, “like a miracle.” He also stated that the virus is a hoax, that kids are virtually immune, and that 99% of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless.” (The WHO says 15% are severe and 5% are critical). Instead of a couple of random Americans blogging conspiracies, our country’s top leaders were misinforming the public and sowing seeds of mistrust. And misinformation can be physically dangerous; in the first three months of 2020, 6,000 people worldwide were hospitalized due to coronavirus misinformation, and at least 800 died.

In other ways, our pandemic was better than MEV-1’s. Most apparent, are Contagion’s exaggerated statistics for drama. Since it is a movie, I don’t think it’s fair to emphasize a comparison of this area between film and real-life (but if you’re curious about the difference, the movie kills 2.5 million Americans, whereas COVID-19 kills 1.7 Americans out of 100,000 per week, and has taken 629,139 lives as of August 25, 2021). The same reasoning goes for the mere 133 days it took for an MEV-1 vaccine to become publicly available; it’s not fair to compare the film to real life. However, in our pandemic, I give us more credit for how people generally came together. Contagion does not show how people united in appreciation for doctors, nurses, hospital workers, transportation workers, grocery store employees, teachers, and other essential workers. Families stood outside nursing home windows with large-lettered posters to wish a relative happy birthday. At 7 pm each night, New Yorkers opened a window or stepped out onto a balcony to make some noise in appreciation for the workers risking their lives every day. You don’t see these kinds of moments in the film. I hope Soderbergh’s sequel will highlight everyday moments like these: the moments of gratitude and kindness. Simply wearing a mask was a way of showing a sense of “We, Not Me.”

The closest heartwarming pandemic moment you get in Contagion is at its very end. At this point in the story, vaccines are widely available, and limited socialization is safer. Matt Damon’s protective single-dad character surprises his teenage daughter by gifting her an elegant, light-pink ruffled dress. He thoughtfully decorates their living room with golden lights and blue streamers, plays U2’s “All I Want Is You” through a speaker, and invites her boyfriend to greet her at the door - all dressed up and ready for an at-home, quarantined “prom night.” Now that is a 2020 moment.


Sophia Acquisto

A Beacon resident since 2001, Sophia is pursuing a Master’s degree in Education at SUNY New Paltz.



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