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How Contagion Predicted COVID-19

An unknown, deadly virus, that originated from a bat in China, killed a number of people and infected millions around the world. Countries were shut down, experts were blamed, people were isolated and quarantined, and the military was deployed to help. Conspiracy theories were created and the media helped to create panic as supplies ran low and people resorted to crime.  These were the events in a 2011 film called Contagion, as well as the events that were lived by people in 2020, at the mercy of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

Contagion told the story of how a deadly infectious disease could spread rapidly around the world in 2011, and in 2020, the Coronavirus did just that. It was hard to ignore the freakishly accurate elements of the nine-year-old film, that seemingly predicted the outbreak of the virus that took over our lives. The film itself was a cleverly constructed thriller with an all-star cast that was successful at the time of release, earning the top spot on opening weekend, however, what’s more impressive is that almost a decade later,  it found itself in the iTunes top 10 most-watched movies in the US.

How the Virus Spread 

It started with a cough and the words Day Two written across the screen. Elizabeth (Beth) Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) was sitting at an airport bar, sweating, discoloured and visibly ill. The first few shots showed everything that Beth touched; the bowl of nuts at the bar, her glass and her credit card as she handed it to the barmaid. You immediately realised that you’re watching how Beth spread the virus.

The next few scenes were in Hong Kong and London, showing sick people touching objects in public places, then back to Beth who was now in Minneapolis. For every new city that was visited, the population was written across the screen, so in just the first few minutes you are shown how these people spread the virus over three different continents, in cities with millions of people. The girl in London was the first death that you see, before seeing Beth hug her son, you now realise he will probably die too. A man dies in Tokyo, and then the man in Hong Kong dies, that’s three deaths in three different countries, and it’s only day two.

The virus spread and killed people much faster in Contagion than what the Coronavirus did, with Beth and her son both dying on day four. On day five, doctors didn’t know what the virus was, with different countries diagnosing the illness differently, some as Sypholytis or Sars. A group of experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) soon realised that they were likely the same disease, as they began discussing clusters, and the potential to shut down Countries borders and schools, much like what was experienced during the Coronavirus pandemic. The images in the film even looked like what was seen during the Coronavirus as people began to stay indoors as the streets became empty, and most people who were out were wearing masks over their faces.

The origin of the virus in Contagion was traced back to Hong Kong, China, and experts suggested in the film that it samples of the virus were showing traces of bat. Similarly, the Coronavirus started in China and has been linked to a bat as well. Beth, who was identified as patient zero in the film, didn’t eat the bat, as patient zero of the Coronavirus did, however, the similarities were already stacking up.  Additionally, both viruses presented with flu-like symptoms such as headaches and coughing, however, not all infected people presented with symptoms, which allowed both viruses to spread to a number of continents before the world even knew what it was.

The Health Officials and Media 

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the film, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne),  was accused of working with pharmaceutical companies in order to profit from the virus. Dr. Cheever was publicly confronted by a journalist (Jude Law) with an enormous online following who believed that a natural drug called forsythia, could cure the disease and that it wasn’t supported by the CDC as they wouldn’t profit from it. This journalist produced a number of stories, going against the advice of the WHO and CDC, which created panic as people stopped believing the experts, becoming desperate for forsythia and started to riot and panic buy. They cleared the supermarket shelves and stocked up on medications and supplies, and then resorted to violence and crime. The Coronavirus pandemic brought out similar behaviours in people with supermarket shelves being stripped as they couldn’t keep up with demand, and violence and crime stemming from these issues.

The beliefs of this journalist also formed part of the issue of conspiracy theories, which were also raised as a result of the Coronavirus. Along with the theory that the CDC made a deal with pharmaceutical companies, other theories were discussed in the film such as whether the disease was intentionally created and spread to be used as a weapon. Similarly, Coronavirus raised theories including the idea that China created the virus to solve its population problem, and some people going further to say that it was part of a bigger plan to destroy the world’s economy, while China’s remained somewhat intact. Other theories included that the virus was actually the 5G network attacking humans brains, while other speculated that DisneyPlus released the virus in time for it’s streaming service.

Measures to fight the Virus 

Quarantine and isolation were also used in Contagion, with Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) being quarantined early on in the film, and with ongoing isolation measures used throughout, to stop the spread of the virus. Borders were shut in the United States and you watched a number of people struggle with isolation as they missed milestones and expressed feelings that they were in prison. Many people were stuck in different countries or states, with the military brought in to enforce roadblocks within countries.

The discussions among Government Officials and Health Organisations, and the messaging that the public received was similar as well. There were arguments among experts around whether schools should be shut down, and people were advised to do simple things such as wash their hands and not touch their faces. Makeshift hospitals, emergency treatment centres and quarantine centres were rapidly established to manage the number of infected people, and there were issues raised on burying those infected. All of these issues were raised throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, however, there were some differences.

The Differences 

Eight million people were infected in Contagion after just 12 days, which was a lot higher than that of the Coronavirus. The mortality rate was a lot higher as well, and the way that you died was different. The deaths in the film were much more dramatic than that of the Coronavirus,  as Contagion attached your brain, resulting in seizures and foaming at the mouth, whereas Coronavirus attacked your lungs.

The similarities far outweigh these differences, however, and the accuracy of the film was not an accident. A number of doctors, scientists and bio-safety scientists were consulted in the making of Contagion, and therefore, perhaps the film should’ve been looked at as a warning, as well as a well made Hollywood blockbuster.

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