Here's What We Can Learn About Coronavirus Panic From "Contagion"

The coronavirus has given the 2011 thriller a whole new audience.

The movie Contagion was released almost nine years ago. At the time, the Steven Soderbergh–directed thriller about a mystery illness that quickly became a deadly global pandemic received generally positive reviews but little fanfare. These days, however, Contagion has found a new audience in the wake of coronavirus fears, as the movie appears to have eerily predicted the outbreak. It's currently at No. 12 amid the top rentals on the iTunes movie chart, and Google Trends shows that searches for "contagion" have spiked since late February, when new COVID-19 cases began to appear around the globe.

Scott Burns, who wrote Contagion, recently told The Hollywood Reporter that he wasn't "that surprised" by how "uncanny" some of the similarities between Contagion and the current coronavirus outbreak are, because when he spoke to scientists while doing research for the movie, they all said "that it's not a matter of if but a matter of when."

"What I learned from these scientists is that these things are going to happen," he said.

Contagion begins with a woman named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) coming home to Minnesota from a business trip in Hong Kong. After feeling unwell for a few days—which she attributes to jet lag—she suddenly seizes and collapses. Her husband (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital, where she dies unexpectedly from an unknown cause. Before you know it, the rest of humanity is following suit, and officials are struggling to contain the pandemic.

The CDC's recommendation to avoid touching your face seemed to bring to mind a quote from the movie from Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears, an epidemic intelligence service officer who tries to identify the virus: "The average person touches their face 2,000 to 3,000 times a day, three to five times every waking minute," she says. (Note: This may be an exaggeration; a 2014 study in the American Journal of Infection Control placed it at more like 23 times per hour, but still!)

The quarantining, lack of confirmed information from public officials, and rise in violence and hate crimes depicted in Contagion are, unfortunately, also very relevant to coronavirus, making the movie's apocalyptic scenes and mass fatalities feel like foreshadowing for the weeks to come.

Paltrow herself referenced Contagion last week, posting a selfie wearing a respiratory mask while traveling to Paris.

"I've already been in this movie," she wrote. "Stay safe. Don't shake hands. Wash hands frequently."

Contagion's tagline, "Nothing spreads like fear," also seems right on the money. In one pivotal scene, a CDC official says that "in order to become sick, you have to first come into contact with a sick person or something that they touched," but "in order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumor, or the television, or the internet," adding that these rumors are "far more dangerous than the disease."

Michael Shamberg, who produced the film, recently told BuzzFeed News that Contagion was "very deliberately designed to be a cautionary film." However, he also said he hoped the movie inspired people to take preventative measures rather than panic.

"If it's scary, it's only meant to scare people into taking precautions and it's only meant to scare the infrastructure into doing the right thing," he said. "We're not trying to scare people that they're all going to die. We're trying to scare people that you can do something."

After all, he said, Contagion "shows that ultimately there will be a solution and humanity will recover."

Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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