A Few Pop Culture Lessons on Viral Outbreaks

The big difference between the COVID-19 threat and any viral threat depicted on-screen has to do with the stakes. In movies and TV shows, the threat has to be immediate and personal to hold our attention.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is a dangerous, deadly threat to the very young, the elderly and those with compromised respiratory or immune systems due to illness, disease, physical condition, or current medical treatment. By the numbers, the mortality rate stands at around 3%. So, for the majority of the planet’s population, this isn’t about avoiding a Thanos-like finger-snap. That makes most of us on the planet the hero of the movie, not the potential victim. By washing our hands and imposing social distancing and self-isolation, we are actively fighting to save hundreds of millions of people. These are people like our infant children, asthmatics like myself, friends in the midst of cancer treatment, and our parents and grandparents.

If you need some additional inspiration to be a hero, below are lessons from a few pop culture sources.

Lesson #1. Don’t touch your face. Contagion (2011). Nine years ago, Steven Soderberg and an A-list cast including Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, and Jude Law presented a pandemic’s spread in the U.S. in the most realistic terms possible. It was plausible at the time and highly entertaining. Now, it’s a roadmap of our country’s worst-case scenario (which, as of last week, we seemed to be on a fast march towards). Check out this eerie exchange between Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dave (Larry Clarke).

Dave : My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything in hand sanitizer after I leave. I mean, she’s overreacting, right?

Dr. Erin Mears : Not really. And stop touching your face, Dave.

Lesson #2. Treat everyone as if they’re infected. The Thing (1980). John Carpenter’s terrifying remake of the 1951 classic “The Thing from Another World” ends (spoiler alert) on the bleakest note I’ve seen in film. Two characters in the Arctic are forced to wait outside of their destroyed research base and freeze to death because they can’t trust that neither one of them is the shape-shifting monster. In “The Thing”, the safety protocol is the exact opposite of our pandemic. The only way to ensure that no one is a murderous alien is to stay together at all times. Here, we need to keep our distance. But the underlying paranoid perspective is the same. When the threat is unseen and indiscriminate, the only thing to do is treat everyone as a threat. You don’t need a blowtorch, though, to stay safe; just 6 feet of distance and access to soap and water.

Lesson #3. The real threat is us. The Walking Dead (2010 – ). The big reveal in Season 1 of The Walking Dead is that all humans have a passive version of the zombie virus. If anyone dies, they will become a “walker.” The cool twist on the zombie canon should have added a more interesting twist to this Simpsons-of-Zombies show. To stop the spread, people should be doing the utmost to keep everyone alive. Instead, the zombies became the equivalent of a childhood game where the floor is lava; they are just the dangerous backdrop. The show takes the view that survival turns people into murderous, selfish psychopaths. I’d like to believe that is not the case, but the hoard purchasing of TP, paper towels, and sanitizer by the masses lends a level of truth to the fatalistic perspective.

BONUS Lesson: Total containment is not the goal. Zone One by Colson Whitehead (2011). In this slow-burn zombie novel, Whitehead presents a very convincing argument– if you put all of your effort into keeping the threat out so you can create a safe zone, then your effort will fail spectacularly. It’s a brilliant novel with an ending that will haunt you forever. Fortunately, our policy-makers have not taken this route. The moment your governor or mayor announces the construction of a giant wall, however, is your signal to pack your bags.

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