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On Watching Contagion: What Do We Learn?

David Lewis is professor of social policy and development at the Department of Social Policy, LSE.

LONDON, Apr 17 2020 (IPS) - Contagion is a 2011 film by US director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Che) that has proved very popular viewing during the first few weeks of the Coronavirus crisis. Set in a fictional global pandemic – modelled on the outbreak of a bat-borne Nipah virus identified in 1999 that killed around 100 people in Malaysia – the film is a tightly-written topical drama with a great castthat includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle.

David Lewis

In the film, the Paltrow character returns to the US from a business trip from Hong Kong, and begins the spread of a deadly infection. The authorities are slow to understand the implications of the virus. As it spreads across the world scientists try to find a vaccine and societies struggle to contain the social and economic consequences.

When it was originally released, Contagion drew praise for the unusual efforts made by its writers and director to ‘get the science right’. More recently, with the filmmade available on Netflix and shown on ITV, it has attracted further attention for its uncanny parallels with the current crisis.

We argued in our book Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films,Television and Social Media, co-edited with Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock, that popular culture provides useful insights into social change and may offer social scientists representations of social reality that can be productive.

I enjoyed the film. It’s well-made and prescient, but perhaps not engaging enough that I’d watch it again. I learned things from it – that ‘social distancing’ has a history, and appreciated the ‘explainer’ that told me what is meant by the ‘R-nought’ of a virus. But what mostly struck me after watching Contagion was how old-fashioned the world it portrayed felt today, and how different the world seemsnow, despite the film being released less than a decade ago.

The movie depicts a post-Cold War international order that is still largely intact. The Global North is in charge, working with the World Health Organization (WHO) office in Geneva, to fight the virus and solve the crisis. US authorities and scientistsare at the forefront of international efforts,in the form of the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.If they can’t solve the problem, it seems no one can. Villagers in Hong Kong have to kidnap and hold a WHO scientist hostage to ensure they get access to the vaccine.

Today’s world looks different. Countries like China, Singapore and South Korea have deployed their own scientific expertise, mobilised their publics and adapted governance arrangementsin the face of the pandemic – in apparently effective ways. By comparison, the responses ofBritain, US, Italy and Spain have appeared disorganised and fragile. President Trump has suspended WHO funding.

UNDP’s 2013 report The Rise of the South: Human Progress In a Diverse World drew attention to the changing balance of global power, where it was no longer useful to understand ‘development’ throughits traditional framing as the Global North trying to influence the Global South. ‘Increasingly the North needs the South’, the report pointed out.The coronavirus crisis has made this decentred, multipolar world of even more apparent and highlights the urgency with which all countries need to cooperate, share ideas, and learn from each other in ways that transcend the old binaries.

The Covid-19 crisis has dramatically highlighted the extent of inequality and poverty within and between countries that has been allowed to increase under neoliberalism. It also shows us the catastrophic consequences of the extreme pressures that we have placed on the natural environment through our unsustainable food systems and consumption practices.

The world is more interconnected, and many commentators on the current crisis emphasise the need for multilateral action. Recent trends towards populist isolation and protectionism have not only made international cooperation to deal effectively with borderless pandemics more difficult, but have also led to an increased questioning of the value of science, the austerity driven decline of public research capacity, and the rise of a populist distrust in experts.‘One thrill of the movie is its belief in solution-driven competence’, wrote Wesley Morris in the The New York Times, highlighting another way in which the movie highlights how far things have changed.

The crisis may, as some have claimed, reinforce the trend towards isolationism and a retreat from globalization. Yet the coronavirusresponse has also promoted a resurgence of community solidarity, volunteering and mutual support. The challenge now is to press national governments into forms of international cooperation that can support this new localism and build a better future.

There are some who see the chance for the sort of reconfiguration of priorities and institutions that came in Britain after World War 2, with a new progressive domestic role for state intervention and an appetite for rebuilding global institutions. As UN Secretary General António Guterres has said: ‘we must act together to slow the spread of the virus and look after each other.This is a time for prudence, not panic. Science, not stigma. Facts, not fear.’

Contagion is a film that entertains, informs and helps to bring these urgent new priorities into even sharper focus.

This story was first published on the London School of Economics (LSE) blog.

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