Released in 2011, Contagion is considered a box-office success. This movie undoubtedly struck a chord with viewers that still remember the fear that surrounded the swine flu and avian flu. Movies like this are some of the scariest I have ever seen, yet they don’t really qualify as a horror film. I think what makes them so scary is the fact that this kind of thing could really happen. Throughout history, populations have been plagued with viruses; viruses that have no cures and some that wipe out entire communities of people before a vaccine is found. As can be seen with this film, the method in which information is either retained or communicated can vastly affect the publics fears and reactions.
As I sat and watched this movie, I was surprised to find how many scenes addressed this issue of crisis communication. I wanted to give you the most well-rounded example I could, hence the length of the clip. I inserted text to break up the scenes and to allow you the opportunity to ponder the questions I posed.
The very first clip you see shows physicians at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discussing the initial cases of infection. As Athena Du Pre (2010) reminds us, crisis communication is often used by public health officials, such as the CDC, as a way to distribute information to individuals during a crisis situation. Information is often released under significant time constraints and the information and choices made are far from perfect (p. 311). As you see in this clip, while much of the pertinent information surrounding this disease remains unfounded, the team must focus on the information that is correct and is able to be released to the public. In this instance, the public communication is identified as isolating the sick people and the quarantine of potential persons with contact. Athena Du Pre (2010) reminds us again that news media pushing for ground-breaking coverage can sometimes raise levels of fear and increase an already stressed population so giving them something to work with can help alleviate this.
The next part of this clip shows a meeting with the Minnesota Department of Health. Again, the subject of what to tell the public is a main concern. There is concern over communicating a probable method of transfer; in this case, respiratory and surface contact. Should the public be told that a disease is probably an airborne pathogen or should the information be retained until more concrete findings are available? This is the battle that crisis communicators deal with; what information to give to the public and when. Information could save a person’s life but mis-information could cause unnecessary panic and fear. As shown in this seen, there are often extenuating concerns surrounding release of information. A board of health representative raises awareness to the Thanksgiving holiday shopping weekend. A message to the public urging them to distance themselves from others could have severe implications on the economy. Athena Du Pre (2010) suggests that sometimes a sense of fear can be productive while at other times it can be disabling (p. 312). It is the belief that a certain level of fear can be a good catalyst for health. By telling people of the potential mode of transfer for this disease, people can start to take accountability for their health, perhaps by wearing a mask or limiting contact with other people.
The other part of this clip shows a physician from the CDC communicating with a loved one. He uses his position to communicate to his fiance that she should get out of Chicago while she can. He knows that there is going to be a mandatory quarantine soon and if she doesn’t leave soon that she will be stuck in Chicago. Putting myself in his shoes, I am not sure I would have the ethical consideration to withhold information from the people I care about. Think about it, how would you feel if you were put in a position where you had to hold back potentially life-saving information from the people you cared most about in the world? Would you communicate this information to a partner? How about to a child? Would you blame or convict a person that released information ahead of schedule? These are questions that I believe have changing answers. Nobody really knows how they would react in a crisis until they are placed in that position. Fear can make you do crazy things.
Athena Du Pre (2010) informs us that communicating with mass media is a vital part of the process for crisis communication. A dedication to being clear, honest and compassionate are key steps in delivering information. In this film, during a live broadcast, a physician from the CDC is presented with allegations that the public is being mis-informed and that information is being leaked to personal friends. This adds to the publics fear that something more substantial is happening. Conspiracy theories are often bred from a belief that information is being restricted from the public. A public forum, such as the one shown in this movie, is a vehicle that can carry this fear into the homes of people around the globe. Is it unethical to raise the public level of fear when it is not yet justified? Does that opinion change depending on the person (would you feel the same if it were a health official or a local conspiracy theorist spreading panic)?
The final part of this clip (I apologize for any spoilers) is in relation to the vaccine for the MEV-1 virus. After a vaccine was finally identified, the question of who gets the first suppliesis on nearly everyone’s mind. Limited quantities are available so rationing the vaccine is unavoidable. If there was already a fear that people in positions of power, such as the physician from the CDC, are releasing vital information to loved ones, one could assume there would also be a fear that vaccinations would go to those individuals before the general public as well. The decisions of the World Health Organization impact the distribution of vaccines throughout the world. As was done with the H5N1 vaccine, decisions regarding who to vaccinate first and how to pay for it are all weighed in on by representatives of this organization (Athena Du Pre, 2010, p, 323).
This movie served as more than just entertainment. It was an eye-opening look at the world of crisis communication as well as lesson in the epidemiology of viruses. In light of the film, I have developed a fear of touching my face as often as well as an even more dedicated appreciation for proper hand washing. I know a lot of what was depicted in this film is somewhat far-fetched but if you look back throughout history, there are many examples of diseases similar to the one depicted here. Do you think we are so advanced medically and technologically as to avoid another plague? I’m not so sure about that…
Until Next Time…