COMMENTARY: Pandemics like the coronavirus crisis inspire outbreaks of art

Matt Damon in 'Contagion' (2011).
Matt Damon in 'Contagion' (2011). Claudette Barius/©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Humanity has a primordial fear of highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19. That is evident from mankind’s longstanding obsession with pandemics.

Scourges that threaten all of us such as Ebola and Spanish influenza — which broke my grandmother’s heart when it killed her son and my Uncle Gordon in 1919 — have been such a preoccupation of screenwriters and film directors that New York magazine’s Vulture section recently published a list of the 79 best pandemic movies. Near the top of the pandemic film table is Contagion, which begins ominously with a black screen and the sound of an unseen woman coughing.

Starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet, Contagion’s plot is jarringly familiar. A highly infectious disease evolves among bats in China and is transmitted to pigs and then via crowded public markets to humans. In a jiffy, the virus is killing millions and creating social and political havoc around the world.

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Is anyone surprised that Contagion, with its almost true-to-life plot, leapt from 279th place last year to become the second most-streamed film this year? If you are interested in watching it, the movie can be found on Amazon Prime.

One of the other most popular apocalyptic films about disease, death and disorder is Outbreak, which can be found on Netflix. The film stars Dustin Hoffman as the good-guy scientist trying to solve a medical emergency that has arisen. The heavy is New Brunswick’s Donald Sutherland as a sinister general who sees the virus’s potential as a bio-weapon.

Two of my personal pandemic film favourites are the ultra-dark British zombie epic 28 Days Later and the more hopeful Andromeda Strain, which dazzled me with special effects that were nifty at the time I first watched the film in 1971.

Another example of the genre and its abiding popularity as a subject that scares us out of our wits is The Walking Dead. A zombie epic, the television series about a group of survivors trying to avoid an infection that is never really explained has been so successful that it is in its 10th season on AMC and Netflix.

Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of ‘Contagion’ movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19
Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of ‘Contagion’ movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19

Quite a lot has been written lately about Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which is a bleak factual chronicle of Britain’s hellish experience with the Great London Plague of 1665 and 1666, which killed about 100,000, or one-fifth, of that great city’s population. But I have always preferred the diarist Samuel Pepys’s far more earthy personal account of the bubonic plague, which was caused by bites from fleas who made their way around on the back of rats.

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Though he was an official in the admiralty at the time of the Great London Plague and had access to all kinds of official information, Pepys was very much a man of the people. He was always out and about and knew many who died from the plague.

With one-third of the world under lockdown, Pepys’s observation — “how sad a sight it is to see the streets so empty of people” — is relevant to billions of people today.

So, too, is when the lord mayor “commands people to be within at nine at night” and that one of the Royal Navy’s warships, the Providence, has had a sailor die on board from the plague.

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Much less accessible but equally morbidly fascinating is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. A series of novellas, it was written in the 14th century in the aftermath of another plague outbreak, transmitted by fleas through rats to humans, which killed more than half the people of Florence, Italy and one-third of the population of Europe.

I was put on to Boccaccio’s book about the Black Death by Ian Hope, a Canadian military historian who lives in Rome. I purchased my copy from Amazon, which was prescient enough to republish the book under its own name long before COVID-19 began festering in the Chinese city of Wuhan last November.

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The Decameron is 313 pages of incredibly dense print. It follows a group of seven women and three men who flee Florence for a deserted country home and spend 10 days cut off from the world talking about life.

Much of the novel is a light amusement. A few parts make for very grim reading. One passage reads: people “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbours’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses.”

The gist of Boccaccio’s writing is that it is possible to survive a pandemic by practising social isolation among a community of amusing friends who talk far more about love affairs and the indiscretions and other shortcomings of the clergy, politicians and businessmen who populate the known world of London, Paris, Athens, Alexandria and Tuscany than they do about the plague that lurks over the horizon. For this reason, The Decameron is sometimes called The Human Comedy.

Books to read during self-isolation
Books to read during self-isolation

All the books, movies and television series about pandemics are, at their core, about humanity’s will to survive. They impart fundamental truths about public health and human behaviour that should inform us today. For example, how being isolated for weeks or months can be a traumatic psychological experience and how critical it is to have a web of friends and family to nourish the brain.

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This likely explains why Andrea Bocelli touched such a chord on Easter weekend with his solo performance of Ave Maria and other classical songs in Milan’s empty Duomo cathedral. The YouTube video of the 25-minute-long operatic concert has already been watched by 37 million people.

For the same reason, Capt. Tom Moore, a 99-year-old British Second World War veteran of the Burma campaign against Imperial Japan, has become a global internet sensation by doing 100 laps with a walker in the garden of his Bedfordshire home. The doughty nonagenarian has raised more than $33 million online to help the workers of the National Health Service fight the coronavirus.

There are dire warnings and uplifting messages about COVID-19 in all of these films, books and videos. The most important advice they offer is that by sticking together we can triumph over our primordial fear of pestilence.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.