mediaX Distinguished Visiting Scholar Scott Z Burns, was interviewed by Michele L. Norris on the similarities between the movie Contagion and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some excerpts from their conversation. You can read the entire Washington Post interview HERE.
How did “Contagion” come to you?
I had been having conversations with my father, whose background was as a scientist, about the possibility of something like bird flu jumping into the human population. I was curious about what would happen in a world where now people travel on airplanes between cities, where someone could work one week in London and one week in New York, and how the way we live could be used by any sort of virus to get a foothold. I asked epidemiologist Larry Brilliant if he thought the movie that I was proposing was outside the bounds of scientific possibility. And he said, “Well, it’s not even a question of if there will be another pandemic; it’s just simply a question of when.”
Are there things in the film that make you brace yourself a bit because you are now seeing the scene you put on paper in the news?
I worry most about the time it could take for us to find an effective vaccine and how that squares with the meager limits of our attention spans. Matt Damon [the husband of the first American victim to die of the virus in the film] and his daughter stay in quarantine for a long time in our script. They remain vigilant. How long will people really do that for?
In the film, the script assumes a fairly high level of government competence.
I never thought in a million years that the scientists and public health people would be questioned and doubted and defunded and, in many cases, dismissed from their posts. That was something as a screenwriter and storyteller I would have never anticipated, because the threat is so obvious.
Was there some hidden message that you left in the film to find our best selves or to stay calm instead of panic?
Yeah, I think the intention in the film — and there are a few scenes where you do see basic human kindness in the face of panic — is that this is an opportunity for a country, as divided as we are, to find common cause. And one of the things that epidemiologist Larry Brilliant has said to me over the years is that love is a big part of survival in these situations. Do you love someone enough to take care of yourself and to respect their vulnerability? Do you have a basic compassion for people less fortunate than you? Dr. Brilliant, you know, had always said to me, “There is, in every one of these, an opportunity for people to become heroic in the way that they respect and treat each other.” And it would have been my hope that this virus gave this country an opportunity to heal from a lot of other problems by pointing out the thing that I think is instructive about a virus, which is, in its eyes, we’re all the same. And that lesson would be very helpful right now.
Read the entire Washington Post interview by Michele L. Norris HERE.
Scott has also been on Next Question with Katie Couric. You can hear that podcast HERE.
Learn more from the Control the Contagion Campaign.