Nothing spreads like fear.
That was the tagline of "Contagion," a 2011 movie in which the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon and Kate Winslet contend with a mysterious virus that soon decimates the globe. It earned good reviews, high marks for accuracy and $136 million in worldwide box office. Then it was more or less forgotten.
Until now. Suddenly, "Contagion" is back. As reported by NPR, it briefly pierced the Top 10 list of iTunes downloads earlier this month and the number of Google searches for the film recently spiked. The painfully obvious reason: COVID-19, a coronavirus disease that has spread from China to much of the rest of the world, including Egypt, Japan, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Thankfully, the movie's grim tagline has not come true — no panic in the streets, no calling out the National Guard, no isolating government officials. That's surely because the lethality rate of the real disease is so much less than that of the fictional one, which killed roughly one out of every five people who got it.
Still, there is a queasy, palpable unease in watching this thing spread, as cruise ships are quarantined, Americans are airlifted and Apple takes a hit to its bottom line. One can't help but imagine how, if the lethality rate ticked up or the impact on the global economy became more pronounced, the misinformation machine that is the right-wing media complex would vomit up some nutty conspiracy theory and we'd have panicky people at one another's throats.
Thankfully, what we've experienced from that corner thus far has been — at least by today's standards — harmless. Hank Kunneman, a Donald Trump-loving Nebraska preacher, did promise that God will protect America from the virus. Oh, and Trump himself, that renowned scientist, says the sunshine of April will kill it, a prediction with which none of his fellow epidemiologists seems to concur. As these two pontificate nonsense, it's worth noting the disease has already turned up in Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona, Washington and California — and that Trump is calling for drastic cuts in funding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, for as much as this outbreak exposes the routine foolishness of what now passes for conservatism, it also serves as a reminder — and rebuke — of a strain of American thought bound to no ideology. Meaning the idea that America is — or can be or ought to be — a fortress, safe from any virus (or refugee, economic downturn, environmental impact) that seeks entry here. It's a childish conceit.
The poet John Donne said, "No man is an island."
The activist Martin Luther King said, "All life is interrelated."
The composers Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie said, "We are the world."
Yet periodically America indulges the idea that we can somehow disengage from the rest of the planet. Think of George Washington warning against foreign "attachments." And of the isolationism that delayed U.S. entry into two world wars. And of Trump abusing allies and immigrants under the rubric "America First."
History has frequently conspired to show us the folly of believing we can wall ourselves off from the world's woes. But it has seldom produced a reminder as elegantly ominous or insidious as this. A virus that started in Wuhan, China, has made its way to San Antonio, USA — among other American towns. Take it as proof that Disney was right.
It is a small world after all.
The Miami Herald