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Why we shouldn't let "Contagion" scare us

Fiction doesn't have to be the model for how our real-life pandemic plays out. Here's how we can avoid the dangers shown in "Contagion."

(Note: This article was originally published by Mick Cohen-Carroll on Medium in March 2020. For current information on COVID-19, consult credible sources like the CDC and check your state’s website for updates about the status of the pandemic in your area.)

It seems like pandemic movies and documentaries are being re-watched in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Maybe we’re trying to understand more about the predicament we find ourselves in, in the shape of informational documentaries… or maybe it’s some sort of self-flagellating, “I-want-to-heighten-my-fears-about-diseases” kind of way. This week, an older movie has been on people’s minds: Contagion. Though it was released nearly 10 years ago, the movie has regained popularity lately, especially these past few days because of the news regarding the medical consultant for the film, Dr. Ian Lipkin (the director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity). He has tested positive for the coronavirus.

It also came back into the limelight because the actress who played “patient zero” in Contagion (Gwyneth Paltrow) has been vocal on social media, claiming that she’s “been in this movie before.”

Contagion's Patient Zero (Gwenyth Paltrow) poses for a photo with a chef. A caption at the bottom reads "Day 1."

The movie toes the line between Hollywood thriller and scientific cautionary tale, but we can try to learn from the situations put forth in Contagion and not end up in the same tumult and chaos that this film’s third act depicts. The most chilling moment is the final shot, where we see just how quickly a virus can spread. It starts on a farm and works its way to a restaurant where the chef shakes hands with a customer. While the movie ends on an ominous note, the current pandemic can have a lesser effect if we take lessons from the movie.

WHAT TO DO? Healthy skepticism.

Quarantine/ Self Isolation

Respecting the boundaries and the curfews set out saved a lot of people in the movie. I’m sure we’ve heard about flattening the curve and there’s a good reason why (a.k.a. not overcrowding hospitals and saving the lives of the elderly/immunocompromised).

Take Safety Measures

Matt Damon plays Mitch, the husband of Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), who was seemingly the first to die from the disease. Mitch saw his wife and stepson die before him. He knows the precautions to take and won’t let his daughter Jory be affectionate with her boyfriend (no kissing or hugging), which ultimately saved her life.

Jory, a teenage girl, stands in front of a laptop under a sign that reads "Prom Night." She's wearing a  prom dress.
Mitch’s daughter Jory spent her Prom night at home.


No hoarding supplies

In the film, the food rations are scarce and not everybody has equal access. In today’s real world, people are panicking over toilet paper. That same mentality of hoarding contributed to more deaths in the movie. If interested in a reason as to why we are hoarding toilet paper, here’s a rather interesting psychoanalytical explanation: What Would Freud Make of the Toilet-Paper Panic?

An empty shelf in the toilet paper aisle of a store

Not giving into fear

There’s a reason the tag for Contagion is “Nothing spreads like fear” (see poster above). When fear and panic set in, we can get transported to a very primitive part of our brains that triggers our survival mechanisms. When the cure finally hits the market in the movie, people kill each other over it. Looting businesses and general mayhem become normal. That situation can be avoided if we listen to Contagion’s message of not letting an unhealthy dose of fear guide us.

At the end of the day, Contagion is just a movie. Let’s not make it a reality. Stay calm, take things day by day, and believe that you can make a difference.

Though this is not strictly a Movie Review, below is an Incluvie scale for reference.

Incluvie Score: 1/5 (I saw a glimpse of a minority, in a good way) General Score: 2/5 (Okay)
Representation of women and POC in highly respected positions and professions. Unfortunate that they made the disease start in China/Hong Kong.