Nothing says “stuck inside for the nth week of social distancing” like a good old fashioned pandemic movie, right? Right. So on Friday evening, Denisa and I sat down to watch 2011’s take on what 2020 might look like. The answer? Pretty scarily accurate in many ways.
If you haven’t already heard of the movie, it’s by Steven Soderbergh, the man who both won and lost the Oscar for Best Director in 2000 (by having Traffic beat Erin Brockovich, since he directed both). He also did the Oceans Eleven remakes. Contagion stars Matt Damon and a slew of others as they trace the global outbreak of a disease that starts in China and quickly spreads across the globe. Where people are mandated to stay at home, and immunity wristbands end up being issued, and there’s panic buying, and on and on.
Comfort fare for you quarantine date night? Not hardly, but eerie how much of it ends up feeling spot on.
Of course, the disease in Contagion is quite a bit deadlier, killing about 25% of the infected in spectacular, foaming-at-the-mouth-and-convulsing fashion. Then again, I think one of the things that’s so tricky about COVID-19 is the fact that it’s generally so subtle. Many people have it and don’t know they have it. When they do have it, they lose their sense of smell or taste. Their breathing becomes labored. It’s just in a (relatively) small portion of the populace that it becomes so deadly, and humans (being humans) are bad at assessing global impacts of something that doesn’t seem “that bad.”
In the film, the disease causes mass panic. Rioting. Looting. Fires. Daylight robbery and murder as people generally freak out about what’s coming. But there’s also the hydroxychloroquine-stand in (Forsythia) which some claim is the cure-all and others say does nothing. The leaders in Contagion’s America sit back and let the scientists do the speaking and the leading, as opposed to actively spreading disinformation and unrest. So in some ways the film was more pessimistic, but in other ways it was far too optimistic.
As I watched it, I reflected on how the goal is to avoid the mass panic of the movie. I really do believe that if we’d waited much longer for the lock down measures, we would have risked the disease really raging out of control. In Maine right now the big debate is how fast we should open up the economy. In my opinion, I’m happy we’re able to have this debate, as it seems easy to forget just a month ago we were worried our health care system would be overwhelmed and there’d be thousands of deaths.
Then again, because those thousands of deaths haven’t materialized, it’s easier for people to think they wouldn’t have materialized, even if we hadn’t locked things down as much as we did. In some ways, it feels like scientists are suddenly in the role dentists have traditionally played, warning the populace that cavities and gum disease don’t mess around, and that they really should brush and floss regularly. Meanwhile, the populace is saying “I didn’t have a cavity this check up, so I’m done with brushing and flossing for now, thanks very much.”
In any case, it was a very interesting “what if” experiment to watch. (My biggest critique was that the R value in the movie is just around 2, it seems, and I don’t think the disease would have spread that quickly with such a low R value. Funny how I’m informed enough now to at least have a mental debate with myself over something that 2011-me would have found super obscure.)
I gave the movie an 8.5/10. Probably higher than I would have outside a quarantine, but it’s got to get bonus points for showing how foreseeable so much of this was, and how avoidable a lot of it could have been. If only . . .
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