Few days ago I watched again the excellent film Contagion, by Soderbergh (originally released in 2011). The reason was that this happened just after the first case of SARS-CoV-2 infections became known in Brazil, and after the WHO declared pandemics for CoViD-19. I don’t think this was intended, but it was very interesting. The parallels are striking, but there are also important differences.
First of all, the film tells about the outbreak of a virus infection and its transformation into a pandemics, and the consequences of this. The fictional virus in the film, called MEV-1, causes a very nasty disease, which kills the patient by Meningoencephalitis. The death scenes are very scary and help in building the tension in the film. Now for the SARS-CoV-2 virus: it causes in most cases a weak infection, similar to common cold and influenza in symptoms, and kills some critical patients by pneumonia and/or organ failure. The film helps, however, making the protagonist immune and asymptomatic,as it happens with COViD-19.
The film is also excellent in showing the aspects related to the control of the outbreak by the health authorities, the disturbing role of the traditional authorities, the search for “patient zero”, and the role of media in spreading panic (represented by a conspiracy theorist/blogger), in real life we know that it is the traditional media which plays this role. We learn in the film what is R0, in the film MEV-1 is R0 4, in the real life, SARS-CoV-2 is R0 2.8. Of course, the film is entertainment, so there are dramatic passages which show heroic (but unlikely fool) involvement of health officials. If you disregard these plot effects, the film is very realistic. The good news is that the outbreak shown in the film is not as severe as the real one we are living now.
There is one part of the film, however, that has a strong potential to become real: the complete destruction of our social life. CoViD-19 is already affecting global economy and has potential to affect our life in a much closer look. A part of the problem comes from the media coverage. There is a tendency of established media to exaggerate the consequences of the disease, to sell newspapers. It is not all media which does this, the first news I watched came from the deutsche welle and the message there was: don’t panic. The outbreak is serious, it has to be handled seriously (as the professionals in China did), but it is not the end of world to get CoViD-19. It doesn’t help, however, when polemic measures like the Italy shutdown are divulged.
Even well intended statements are twisted out of context by the media, in the way to boost panic. When Angela Merkel states that 70% of Germany will be infected with CoViD-19, she is not spreading panic, she is a scientist and she is calling for solidarity and compassion. The media, however, twists this statement as alarmist.
I am also a scientist, and although I am not a biologist or infectologist, I know how science works. Therefore I went to the specialists for information. Yesterday I read and interview with David Uip, director of the Contingency Center for Coronavirus infection in the State of Sao Paulo. I learned that the authorities are prepared for the outbreak, that the statistics are favorable (for example, according to him, about 80% of the infected will present weak symptoms or no symptom at all), that the main instruction is for prevention, that simple measures can protect (like washing hands frequently and avoiding people agglomeration), that symptoms in kids and adolescents are expected to be weak.
Some decisions, however, are not helpful. Yesterday the Governor of State Sao Paulo decided to cancel lectures and shut down schools. This is questionable and seems to be directed to ease the fears of the population, but it puts kids in contact with grandparents, which are usually the critical patients, while kids are in most cases asymptomatic carriers.
The important message is: don’t panic. Listen to what the authorities (in this case, the scientists) have to say. Follow the instructions, repeating: wash your hands with plenty of water and soap, maintain distance from other people, avoid touching your face. Seek medical help in case the symptoms are severe (persistent fever, fevers that start and stop frequently, shortness of breath) and/or if you area a risk patient (over 60 years old). I asked a medic what to do in case of mild symptoms and her answer was clear: remain home. Overcrowding the hospitals with people who do not need medical attention can be worse than the disease itself.