Why ‘Contagion’ lingers around the Covid pandemic like a bad smell

Why ‘Contagion’ lingers around the Covid pandemic like a bad smell

by Alex McCarron
article from Wednesday 17, February, 2021

BASKING in the glow of the UK government’s successful vaccine rollout, Matt Hancock recently admitted it was a Hollywood film, Contagion, that inspired him to buy vast stocks of vaccine for the British population. The film, concerning a devastating global pandemic, foresaw the global rush for vaccines, and Hancock, like most of us, watched it at the beginning of the Covid turmoil. Unfortunately, like most of us, he was unable to distinguish fact from fiction, and perhaps unwilling or unable to do the required background reading and research about global pandemics beyond an evening session on Amazon Prime.

To its credit, the 2011 film, directed by Steven Soderburgh, one of the most creative directors of the last 30 years is far from a simple slice of apocalyptic Hollywood schlock. Soderburgh and writer Scott Z Burns sought the input of various eminent epidemiologists, including Larry Brilliant, part of the smallpox eradication programme. Science writer Tom Chivers, whilst not engaged in the juvenile name calling of anti-lockdown scientists on twitter, claimed “if your pandemic response is going to be influenced by a film, you could do a lot worse than it being influenced by Contagion.”

However, rather than offer a compelling glimpse into the future the film has proved extraordinarily damaging. It is one of the reasons society has been plunged into chaos. Contagion lingers around the Covid-19 pandemic like a bad smell.

In the film, a dastardly unknown virus emerges in Asia, spreads across the world and kills a huge load of people. We follow the scientists and public health officials as they battle to manage the pandemic and along the way are introduced to now everyday concepts like “social distancing” “R number” and “fomites.” The sterilisation and protection from fomites turns out to be not particularly relevant to spread of Covid-19, but the policy response was obsessed with it, because it was in Contagion. Indeed, the first lesson of Contagion comes from Lawrence Fishbourne’s CDC official, who declares “social distancing is our best defence” and my, haven’t our leaders taken that one to heart? 

The film makes heavy use of composite characters, representing whole swathes of the health bureaucracy, or society as a whole. Kate Winslet’s epidemic intelligence officer represents the whole machinery of contact tracing, again a tool that has seen billions pumped into it in Western Europe, and seems to have proved largely a waste of time and money. 

Another such character is blogger and conspiracy theorist Alan Krumweide, played by Jude Law, meant to represent the disinformation and conspiracy machine that scientists long feared would undermine any epidemic response. The character attempts to market a homeopathic remedy as a cure for the pathogen, falsely claiming it cured him of the eponymous contagion. This plotline influenced two core principles of the Covid-19 policy response. Namely to either shut down or discredit any criticism of the government’s lockdown response or scientific modelling, and to reject any existing pharmaceuticals to treat Covid-19.

It is for this plotline that a largely discredited scientist with an abysmal record such as Neil Ferguson is untouchable, because his critics can be safely labelled crackpots, and, as Contagion shows, their contribution must be, at least, valueless, or at worst, dangerous.

Likewise, the zeal with which non-pharmaceutical interventions have been advocated whilst pharmaceutical interventions, with a least some evidential basis, have been dismissed out of hand has been remarkable, though entirely predictable if your policymakers have been taking notes from Contagion

The homeopathic quack cure hawked by Krumweide has real life analogues in Hydroxychloroquine with Zinc, Ivermectin and Vitamin D. However, all three of these have vastly more evidence to support their use than masks or closing primary schools. Indeed, they have been the subject of outrageous lies by the medical establishment. The Lancet’s publication of the fraudulent Hydroxychloroquine study should have been a resigning offence for editor Richard Horton. Likewise, the Health Secretary misled parliament by claiming the trial he ordered showed Vitamin D did not “appear to have any impact” – only for officials to concede that no such trials happened. Far from using Contagion as a warning, the medical establishment seems to be bending reality to fit its plot.

One concern overrides all others when it comes to using Contagion as a model for managing Covid-19. The pathogen in the film has an Infection Fatality fate of 30 per cent, and, in the film, the young and healthy were just as vulnerable to the virus. A far cry from the 0.2–0.5 per cent IFR of Covid 19, disproportionately harming the old and sick. Lockdown Sceptics have long wondered, why have these measures to fight the pandemic been so disproportionate? The answer lies not in the contagion, but in Contagion.

Politicians are often trapped in their own narrative. Most backbenchers will deny it, but they have all daydreamed about moving into Number 10 one day. Matt Hancock, who stood for the premiership in 2019, clearly deludes himself that the job is his for the taking after his magisterial handling of the pandemic. In much the same way that cinematic detectives can’t solve a case without at some point being suspended, it is an iron law of disaster films that politicians are venal ignoramuses, dragging their feet to impose life saving measures at the behest of big business, or with an eye on the next election. 

Not for Hancock will there be legacy of such inaction, rather, he would listen whole-heartedly to the science, and if that meant closing the beaches, along with pretty much everything else, then so be it. Yet, the scientists who advised Soderburgh were hardly going to paint their peers as deluded crackpots. One has to wonder if Soderburgh had sought out those who dealt with the sharp end of scientific blunder during the Foot and Mouth and Swine Flu debacles he would hold scientists in such a Holy light.

Contagion resolves with the discovery of a vaccine, and it is in that storyline that the government is trapped. They are the protagonists, spearheading the film’s denouement with tearful emotion. The third act was written back in April, and it was lock down until vaccine, because that’s what happened in Contagion.

Contagion does not have a fourth Act. The vaccine is administered and the film ends, bar a tedious subplot with Marion Coutillard. There is no indication of what the post-Contagion world is to look like. Thankfully, that means no portrayal of a diabolical new normal for the government to copy under the guise of following the science. It’s up to us to write the sequel. 

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Alex McCarron is a documentary director, producer for @unlocked_uk_ and host of the Escape from Lockdown podcast

Photos of Contagion promotional material copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures 

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