'Contagion' Writer Scott Z. Burns Talks Coronavirus Comparisons: "We Can Be The Cure"

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 movie Contagion shot back up the iTunes charts in January of this year, long before the coronavirus (aka COVID-19) was officially declared a worldwide pandemic. We wrote about how the film was eerily prescient, and in a new interview, that movie's writer, Scott Z. Burns, addresses the comparisons between the film and our current reality, talks about the biggest mistake we're making in combating the virus right now, and more. Read his quotes below.

Speaking with Slate, Burns (who directed last year's methodical true-life thriller The Report) had some fascinating things to say about the film's predictions of our modern situation, the research he did before writing it, and more.

The Movie's Predictive Quality

"It has been very strange to me, whether on social media or in conversations with friends, that people will say to me, 'This is uncanny how similar it is,'" Burns said. "And I don't find it to be that surprising, because the scientists I spoke to, and there were a lot of them, all said that this was a matter of when, not if. So, I guess my feeling as someone who believes in science is that when scientists tell us those things we would do well to listen...When people tell me that the movie seems to be coming true, I say to them that I never contemplated that we would have leadership in this country that would gut our defense [by disbanding our pandemic-preparedness teams]. This administration and this Republican Party talk about protecting people with a wall, and we can't even make test kits."

Lessons From His Research

"One of the beautiful things I learned while doing my research is what public health really means," he explained. "What I came to understand it to be was an obligation we have to each other. Right now, as our country is so divided, this is actually a moment to build bridges and to say, regardless of your differences with your neighbor, we can keep each other safe if we do the right things. And that means social distancing. That means washing your hands a lot. That means staying home if you are sick. Those are three really good first steps to take. If you talk about it with people in public health, until we have a pharmaceutically generated or a scientifically generated cure, we are the cure. We can be the cure. It means listening to public health officials and being conscious of your obligation to your fellow humans."

Our Biggest Mistake

Though the disease in Contagion is deadlier than the coronavirus, it's clear to Burns that things are not being handled in an ideal manner right now in the United States. "I think the gravest mistake is not giving the space and the microphone and all of the support to the public health officials who can help guide us through this. We have really good people in this country. They need to get together and be allowed to speak to us clearly and not be filtered...If we are going to get through this in the best version, it is by empowering those people and giving them the resources that they need."

A Sliver of Hope

Burns wrapped up the interview with the tiniest glimmer of optimism, painting a picture in which the tide could eventually shift back toward normalcy. "I have incredible confidence in the scientists that I know, and I have unbelievable faith in American ingenuity. Knowing that there are people in every sector right now — whether it is microbiology or tech or whatever — who are trying to come up with ideas that will keep us safe is very heartening. I am encouraged by the ability of scientists to sort these things out, and I am grateful that the mortality rate of this virus is not like the one in the movie. I do believe that we will sort this out. But it is really up to our government leadership to decide how fast we sort it out, and how many people need to suffer before they pull their heads out of their asses."

The entire interview (which covers things like misinformation, price gouging, and the interconnectedness of the coronavirus response and climate change) is great, and definitely worth reading in full. You can do that right here.