The Contagion Narrative—and What It Leaves Out



We have been living in a disaster movie, so caught up in the suspense, we failed to see how scripted it was. Turns out there is an “outbreak narrative” in films and popular novels, and it has influenced our media, our policy, our response.

There are stock characters: Patient Zero, who seems healthy just long enough to spread the virus to the Ensemble characters; the star Epidemiologists who trace the virus; the heroic Lab Scientists who isolate it and develop a vaccine; the evil Charlatans and Opportunists who exploit people’s fear along the way. (Our real-life pandemic added the Doubters and the Rebels to that list.)

Next, you have the tropes. First, disease emerges from dirt and foreignness and primitive conditions. (Remember the involuntary Western shudders at the phrase “wet markets”?) Second, depravity and disease go together. In Contagion, the first carrier was gambling in a Hong Kong casino, then stopped off for an adulterous fling before returning home to infect her son. Which brings us to the next trope: Children die. (Our virus substituted old people and people of color.) Finally, experts make magic bullets that will conquer the disease.

In her book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, published back in 2008, Priscilla Wald described how these tropes distort our response to a pandemic, affecting contagion routes and survival rates, upsetting economies, and making it easier to stigmatize certain people, places, and behaviors. Mary Mallon became known as “Typhoid Mary,” blamed as an immigrant. The ways we anthropomorphize a virus or treat it metaphorically spill into other realms—witness J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoia about the spread of “the bloody virus of communism.”

The media have been interviewing Wald lately, comparing the current reality to its scripts. There is a mythic quality to the outbreak narrative, she notes. The threat is apocalyptic and terrifying, but then humanity is saved by triumphant scientists. Rather than think about nature as indifferent to us, our fragile collective ego needs to imagine an enemy. Rather than focus on public health and social inequity, we crave an epic battle. Social justice does not play well on big or small screens.

I learned about Wald’s framework from Corinna Treitel, a Washington University history professor who studies the interplay of medicine, science, history, and politics. She led a panel discussion about the film Contagion, looking for its sharp outline in the past year’s experience. “I thought about the outbreak narrative when family and friends and colleagues expressed an ardent faith that scientists would quickly develop a magic bullet,” she said. “And I thought about it when I listened to Donald Trump talk endlessly about ‘the China virus,’” making it seem as exotic and distant as possible.

Even the title of the movie is revealing, Treitel points out. “Would you go see a film called Virus? I don’t think so. ‘Virus’ does not evoke your primal fears. Why not? Because you buy the outbreak narrative. But contagion entered the vocabulary seven centuries ago, with the Black Death. It can mean moral corruption, strong poison, or a horrific smell. It evokes our fear.”

Later, we talk one-on-one. I want to know if she thinks director Steven Soderbergh deliberately linked the virus in Contagion to depravity.

“I doubt it,” she says. “I suspect he didn’t even know he was channeling that. But no historian would be surprised to see disease and depravity linked. I was just lecturing about leprosy, which in the medieval period was considered highly contagious—and the people thought most likely to be carriers were people who had adulterous sex.”

The storytelling techniques are hard to resist. The timeline that structures Contagion, for example. How often have we heard the dates: December 31, 2019, a mysterious disease in Wuhan is reported in The New York Times. January 11, 2020, the first death. January 30, the World Health Organization announces a global crisis. February 11, the disease is given a name. April 6, Missouri locks down. The timeline makes it all seem linear. As though there are not parallel stories of equal importance in the social reaction and secondary crises the pandemic has caused. As though there will be a distinct endpoint.

And so, we live breathlessly, looking for heroes and waiting to be saved. We are convinced “normal” will come back and COVID-19 will be eradicated—even though in a recent Nature survey, almost ninety percent of immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the coronavirus said that would never happen. They expect this virus to become endemic, popping up here and there, continuing to mutate.

Meanwhile, we laypeople have tracked cases and deaths as though the graphs would determine our fate that week. But we have not thought much about how we are dealing with our mortality—which, Treitel points out, would make an excellent subject for a thoughtful pandemic movie. “Americans don’t like to talk about death. There’s something cultural there, too, that we can be young and healthy forever.”

She sighs. “What struck me is how much of the story filmmakers and historians have missed. What is it actually like to be in lockdown? What about all the secondary crises that may be doing even more damage than the pathogen? Historians don’t typically write about that kind of stuff. And filmmakers center on the sexy stuff, not all the quiet dramas behind closed doors. What is it like for people who have to tell someone they will die in a room alone, sealed off from everyone they love?”

But that is not the epic battle of our outbreak narrative.

Its simplicity is “a style of American optimism,” Treitel says. “We assume technology and science can solve every problem; disease can be eradicated.” She chuckles, thinking of Mark Zuckerberg’s $3 billion plan to “cure all disease.” “I thought, ‘Wow, what arrogance.’ And then I thought, ‘This is American optimism totally unbound.’”

It pumps us up, gives us courage. We focus on the victories, and in all the hoopla about vaccines, little is said about the strains that the vaccine does not address or the other viruses waiting to pop.

Nor does our optimistic narrative tell us how we need to change. COVID-19 has overlapped with rising anxiety about a rapidly changing world with increased globalization and social tension. It plays out perfectly, on the level of metaphor: Microbes respect no geopolitical boundaries. People have a profound need for one another yet are a threat to one another. Nature is cleansed by our shutdown. We see all this while we are eating our popcorn, waiting for the finale. But because the narrative stays simple, we do not think about the ways land is being developed and habitat is being destroyed, narrowing the buffers between wild and human life. Nor do we dwell on public health and social justice, because they are subtle and messy and nowhere near as cool as a molecular immunologist’s lab.

By imagining the virus as the enemy and science as waging war, we forget our side is part of the problem.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.