In 2015, the pilot of SyFy’s fictional outbreak show “12 Monkeys,” in which 98 percent of the world’s population is killed by the fictional Kalavirus, notes: “It’s never been about if. It’s always been when.”
In February, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued the same warning about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19: "It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen.”
Americans around the country are certainly taking this warning to heart. Stores are running low on hand sanitizer and masks. People are sharing tips for what food to stock up on in case they have to stay inside for days or even weeks.
But this assertion of “when” rather than “if” has filled press briefings, news articles and Hollywood movies since AIDS emerged in the 1980s, serving as a frightening reminder that not every disease has a cure, that nowhere is safe, and that doctors and governments do not always know how to protect you — if they even want to.
Outbreak narratives — in which a viral outbreak spreads before being eventually contained or neutralized — sell tickets and newspapers and books, regardless of whether the virus involves zombies or evil corporations, terrorists or poor hygiene.
Outbreak narratives sell tickets and newspapers and books, regardless of whether the virus involves zombies or evil corporations, terrorists or poor hygiene.
Alarmingly, outbreak narratives are even used as how-to manuals, of sorts. In 1998, President Bill Clinton passed “The Cobra Event,” Richard Preston’s fictional account of bioterrorist attacks on American soil, to Defense Secretary William Cohen and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala referenced the book in her article “Bioterrorism: How Prepared Are We?” for the Centers for Disease Control’s “Emerging Infectious Diseases” journal.
A couple days ago, journalist Mike Stuchbery claimed that some U.K. and U.S. crisis response teams are reading “World War Z” by Max Brooks as a study in the social effects of epidemics. The novel is a fictional account of a zombie plague that wipes out almost all of the world’s population.
As enjoyable as fictional outbreak narratives may be to watch, do not confuse Hollywood entertainment for our current reality. Do not get caught up in the panic of sensationalized sound bites. Do not get distracted. Do not be manipulated into fostering ignorant fear or hate. We are not living through Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011) or Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak” (1995). What we are living through is the reckless destruction of American infrastructure.
As I discuss in my book “Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses and the End of the World,” the outbreak narrative reveals and exploits anxieties related to three types of increasingly ineffective boundaries: first, between your personal body and your fellow citizens; second, between individual nations; and third, between “ordinary” people and potentially dangerous disenfranchised groups.
Understanding these anxieties can help us deal with the very real crises we now face. Significantly, the outbreak narrative also exposes various ways these anxieties have been constructed and commodified. While it is true that fear may be a result of a particular situation, it is also a product of social construction, shaped by cultural scripts that instruct people how and of what to be afraid.
Films like “Outbreak” and “Contagion” depict a world reimagined as increasingly unbounded zones of containment, protection and vulnerability. As globalization leads to the increased threat of a viral outbreak, some argue for a return to antiquated borders, but the lesson most commonly drawn in these movies is that this would be impossible; there is no border that can keep out contagious disease. Another lesson implied by these fictional outbreak narratives — sometimes more explicitly than others — is that the virus almost always travel from east to west, from Africa or Asia or the Middle East, infecting the innocent Americans caught in harm’s way.
“Othering” is a key thematic trope of the outbreak narrative, both as a way to reflect on how a disease would (and could) spread and as a way of placing blame and indulging implicit racism and stigma. And it is a trope that is very much repeated in real life. For example, Sheldon Ungar, in his analysis of American media coverage of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire, found that every source under consideration contained the view that Zairian “conditions are perfect for breeding a plague,” repeatedly referring to the collapse of their public health system, the “staggeringly corrupt government,” the soldiers “preying on a frightened populace,” and describing the capital of Zaire as “defined by decay.”
More recently, the coronavirus outbreak has already resulted in racial slurs and assaults. In Los Angeles, a man shouted at a Thai woman that “every disease has ever came from China, homie. Everything comes from China because they are f------ disgusting.” In New York, a man called an Asian woman a “diseased b---- before hitting her in the head. In Indiana, two Asian travelers were reportedly refused a room at several hotels. The Instagram account belonging to the Health Services center at UC-Berkeley posted that “common reactions” to viral outbreaks include xenophobia, much to the anger of many Asian and Chinese international students, who felt the post condoned racist responses.
Unfortunately, this pattern is not confined to contemporary narratives, fictional and real. Immigrants and foreigners have historically been seen as “contagious” and “diseased.” Professor Alan M. Kraut, a specialist in U.S. immigration and ethnic history, in an essay entitled “Foreign Bodies: The Perennial Negotiation over Health and Culture in a Nation of Immigrants,” describes how, at the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to public health, specifically over fears of the bubonic plague, while the Irish were charged with bringing cholera to the United States in 1832. Italians were also stigmatized for polio, while tuberculosis was called the “Jewish disease.” During the 1990s, Haitians who tested positive for HIV were held at Camp Bulkeley in Guantanamo Bay and denied entry under a 1987 law barring immigration of HIV positive individuals into the United States.
This pattern is not confined to contemporary narratives, fictional and real. Immigrants and foreigners have historically been seen as “contagious” and “diseased.”
In July 2014, then-Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., accused immigrants from Central America of carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis. In July 2015, Donald Trump declared that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border” in the bodies of immigrants, while in June 2017, he reportedly claimed that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS.” Outbreak narratives allow for and encourage this kind of stigmatizing of individuals or locations deemed contagious or ripe for “plague breeding.”
Viruses remain a powerful and infectious metaphor, a way to demarcate “dangerous” people, a way to draw attention to the flaws and frailties of the bonds between people and between nations, and a way to spread and construct fear. As Peter N. Stearns writes in his book “American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety”: “We have come, as a nation, to fear excessively.” And one of the things we fear most is infection, both literal and metaphorical. The proliferation of digital media — our ability to digest all the information, all the time — makes this fear even more infectious. The power of panic — as well as the fear of infection — can now be multiplied the world over.
As a result, fear and speculation can spread like wildfire, echoing the spread of an actual virus. This conceit has fueled many an outbreak narrative’s promotional campaigns. For example, the tag line for “Pandemic” was: “The fear is real. The panic is spreading.” While “nothing spreads like fear” was the tag line for “Contagion,” it was also used as the URL for the promotional website, www.nothingspreadslikefear.com.
The Hollywood outbreak narrative is a classic because it so effectively plays on our fears about globalization, immigration, ineffective borders and invisible threats. Analyzing these fictional narratives before and even during an outbreak can help us see what to do and, more important, what not to do — like buying an over-priced mask that will do nothing to protect you.