Scott Z. Burns on why the coronavirus pandemic is better—and worse—than the one he imagined.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, people are turning to the 2011 movie Contagion for a glimpse of the future. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie eschews the hyperbole of typical disaster movies for a chillingly logical progression, which screenwriter Scott Z. Burns based on extensive research about the nature of real pandemics. (One of his consultants, Ian Lipkin, recently spent two weeks in self-imposed quarantine after visiting China to investigate the virus’s origin.)
The movie starts with the sound of a single cough over a black screen, and within 15 minutes, Gwyneth Paltrow is lying on an autopsy table with her skull cut open—a terrifying reminder of just how fast and how far a novel infection can spread. The movie’s invented virus is far deadlier than COVID-19, but watching it is an unnerving reminder of what might be in store, especially if we don’t act to stop it. Slate talked to Burns about what it’s been like to watch his predictions become reality, how it’s felt to watch his movie rise up the iTunes rentals chart, and what steps we can take to stop the worst of his predictions from coming to pass.
Slate: There’s been a surge in people rewatching Contagion, and some of the parallels with what’s going on now are positively eerie. What does it feel like to watch a script you wrote 10 years ago more or less coming true in real time?
Scott Z. Burns: Well, obviously, you know, it’s very upsetting to see people getting sick and dying. The part of me that is a human being is more struck by this than the part of me that is a filmmaker.
That being said, it has been very strange to me, whether on social media or in conversations with friends, that people will say to me, “This is uncanny how similar it is.” And I don’t find it to be that surprising, because the scientists I spoke to, and there were a lot of them, all said that this was a matter of when, not if. So, I guess my feeling as someone who believes in science is that when scientists tell us those things we would do well to listen.
Which is unfortunately still an issue right this minute.
It is incredible to me that we are not letting the really amazing public health people in this country lead the response—that we are finding out that we don’t have enough test kits and have for some reason disbanded our pandemic-preparedness teams. When I was at the CDC researching the movie in 2009 and 2010, those people were extraordinary. It was no different than the feeling you might get if you went to a firehouse and saw how committed those first responders are to keeping people safe. Slashing the budgets of those things is something I would have never contemplated as a screenwriter. When people tell me that the movie seems to be coming true, I say to them that I never contemplated that we would have leadership in this country that would gut our defense. This administration and this Republican Party talk about protecting people with a wall, and we can’t even make test kits.
Trump has been talking about closing the border with Mexico, but there’s absolutely no evidence that’s how the virus is spreading.
There was an article that I read in the New York Times yesterday where a public health official in Seattle had said that they’d been aware of community spread for a long time. So it’s already in our country. The issue isn’t playing games with our borders; it’s how we take care of people now. It’s stunning to me that our administration can’t put out a clear message on how people can stay safe and what our tools are for understanding the current spread. There’s a video on YouTube of a song they did in Vietnam about hand-washing and how important it is. Why isn’t our government putting out public service messages about how to stay safe? That isn’t that hard.
I did have that uncanny feeling watching Contagion this week, where the characters are talking about social distancing and fomites and R0s—like, how did they know? But then you stop and think it’s because this is just the science of how epidemics spread, and it’s no different now than it was 10 years ago.
I mean, yeah. And we were in a better place to deal with this when I was doing research on the movie. We had a Department of Homeland Security that had a pandemic-preparedness team in place. There were people who understood how public health works. I listened to a press conference that the president gave where he described himself as a businessman who didn’t like it when people were just sitting around. Well, I wonder how he feels about the fire department. I live near a firehouse, and those people spend some time sitting around when there’s no fire‚ but you can’t build a fire department once your house is on fire. Unfortunately, this administration has decided that is what it wants to do, and it puts people way behind. When you look at the amount of testing this country has done compared to other countries, that’s the part that is scary to me.