I recently watched Contagion, a film about a pandemic sweeping around the world. Inspired by Folding Ideas’ moving video essay on watching the film during lockdown, I wanted to go through that experience, to see what insight or catharsis an imagined pandemic could bring.
Like watching real reactions to the pandemic, it was a strange mix of alarming and comforting. It certainly felt more real in the light of recent events. R numbers, social distancing, face masks, the difficulties of making a vaccine – many things that have become all too familiar in 2020 are present in this 2011 film. But there was one thing that was notably absent – people being reasonable.
There’s been a lot of alarming and selfish behaviour around covid-19, from hoarding to anti-lockdown protests to attacks on telephone masts. There have also been dramatic examples of selfless, generous, even heroic behaviour, from the long hours worked by medical staff to the armies of volunteers feeding and supporting their communities. But what I’ve seen the most of, in between the clickbait headlines, is people being calmly and undramatically reasonable. Following the rules, both in their letter and their spirit. Finding ways to stay sane while they can’t get out. Rebuilding their social support structures online to get through the constant, low-level mental health grind that is living in strained circumstances.
The reality of covid-19 has been Zoom meetings, online pub quizzes, extended video calls with family and friends. It’s been waiting for hours to get a delivery slot for groceries so that you don’t go out and risk spreading the infection. It’s been everything from wine tasting to book clubs to entire business departments going virtual with a lot of ingenuity and very little complaint.
It’s not dramatic, and perhaps that’s why these reasonable moments are missing from Contagion. Or perhaps its creators couldn’t predict that this was how most human beings would behave under pressure – not moving to extremes of selfish or selfless acts, but simply, quietly, cooperatively finding ways to get on with life.