Contagion Shows the Limits of the State

I went to see Contagion tonight, and can tell you, dear reader, it’s an entertaining film.

A new virus enters the human population, a mutated version of the bird flu, and the film chronicles how Americans, governments and others in the world, including China, muddle through.

“Muddle through” is a phrase used to describe the human condition during the greatest pandemic, caused by the 1918 “Spanish flu,” which, as it turns out, wasn’t in fact Spanish.

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
is a highly readable book I recommend for all who are interested in the actual events that occurred during the last great lethal pandemic to hit humans.

But I digress, a little. Contagion is a movie that shows great restraint and subtly, both in it’s containment of the story to a few key lives facing the treat, while giving the audience, in bite-sized cuts, the ability to understand what will happen during the next pandemic.

Specifically, Contagion has appeal because it gently but clearly shows the limits of the State.

For those not wanting to become forced by circumstances to act in survival mode, as you find out the hard way the limits of the ability of the State to aid you, start preparing to be independent of the State.

Interestingly, in the film, no one is remotely prepared, just like in real life. For example, most Americans have less than three day’s food on hand.

Those who are not prepared often prey upon those who are, go without, or end up taking. Obviously, it is in these times, money loses its value.

But the film is light on the dark side of a pandemic, and interestingly, the most political part of the film is told through the eyes of those in the government who actually know what is happening, as they discover it or experience it.

The investigation or the mystery of what has happened is a fascinating ride, as well as the exercise by the State of its powers to attempt to shut down those whose views diverge from the party line and the State’s applications of sanctions against those part of the State who attempt to help their loved ones by telling them what they know — or bloggers who write about what they think is happening, or has happened.

The film is partly billed as a pandemic in the age of the internet, and one consistent sub plot is the fate, actions and reactions of the government and of society to a population on a desperate hunt for information not forthcoming from the government. It also plays with the morality of making money off of saving lives, and adds greyness pronouncements of crusading in the name of the truth.

While the film proclaims loudly that panic and the collapse of society will kill more than the virus, it does not paint the picture of that assertion — it merely insists on it.

In the “Spanish flu” pandemic, it is pretty clear what killed the most, it was the virus. The second greatest killer was the State’s urge to censor information, which caused many millions to die.

However, the clear warning in the film is simple: those who are not prepared, or do not have the sense or ability to discern the course of events, or to prepare “just in case” — you can see yourself in this film, and what you may find yourself faced with contemplating with having to do, just to muddle through. Not surprisingly, survival favors the prepared. (Although, in pandemics, the lucky gene pool factor ranks high.)

The simple utility of Contagion (while being entertaining) is it’s ability to walk you through being what to expect, not just in a pandemic type crisis, but in any society-wide crisis that puts the normal assumptions and day-to-day goods and services off the rails.