We have spent decades preparing for the end of the world. Well, more accurately, we have spent decades consuming media that tells us what the end of the world will look like. Aliens, zombies, killer robots, giant meteorites, a dying sun, catastrophic ice ages, an exploding moon, mutating neutrinos. We were promised marauding biker gangs, large war rigs armed with impressive machine guns. We were sold undead hordes, hurtling comets, overwhelming technological foes with death rays, gigantic city-destroying tsunamis, legions of Kaiju. We were told about the inevitable collapse of civilisation that would follow most disasters.
Every big disaster conceivable, and the responses tend to be similarly spectacular. Large engines to move the Earth. Jet planes to destroy the invading ships. Gigantic survival ships launched from Tibet. Brave Men™ flying into space to blow up the incoming asteroid. And most importantly, the threat had to be such that Brave Men™ could shoot at it.
When actual disaster hits however, it tends to be much less of a blockbuster. A tiny virus, a spiky ball of protein, an invisible enemy that doesn’t even look that menacing in computer simulations. So our disaster was milder, more terrifying for some, more abstract to others.
And the response? Wash your hands, stay at home, wear a mask outside. We get to live by daily statistics of infections and deaths, we learn about R0, exponential infection, and flattening curves, and we get to experience why small numbers matter in the long run. The heroes are not the soldiers and armed militias, the heroes are the nurses, shop attendants, delivery drivers, and fruit pickers.
Why is there such a disconnect between our imagined dystopias and real ones? Obviously germs do not make good enemies, and wind is not supposed to be scary outside of an M. Night Shyalaman film. There are few successful depictions of viral spread in film and printed media. ’12 Monkeys’ is a pretty good one, and while it is more about time travel, the threat of the virus is prevalent throughout. Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ starts with a deadly virus that kills most of the world’s population, but then it turns into a struggle between good and evil for most of the rest of the book. The reboot of ‘The Planet of the Apes’ also has a viral element that explains the demise of the human race, but again the virus serves as the background.
By far the best viral infection movie of all time is ‘Contagion’, a film that got a lukewarm reception upon release, but now has become one of the must-watch films of the pandemic. I love that movie, it has science at its heart, the heroes are the health workers of the CDC and the unwitting person that has immunity despite losing his wife after she cheated on him. But as much as I like it, ‘Contagion’ was not enough to prepare us for what happened in reality. In that film the whole world acts united against the threat of the virus, with governments, the WHO and the CDC at the forefront of helping to get a vaccine. It is obvious that this is an Obama-era film, governments are generally competent and led by intelligent people willing to listen to the scientists. There’s even some physical contact tracing performed by Marion Cotillard!
In reality, many countries have the worst possible leaders that you could have at this moment, a veritable smorgasbord of populists, inept despots, and narcissists. It also was produced before the disinformation social media explosion, so there’s only one conspiracy theorist spreading falsehoods. Now we have conspiracy theorists of every political leaning and level of sophistication, from bizarre 5G conspiracies, to anti-vaxxers.
The disconnect between popular culture and reality may seem like something that is not critical, but fiction, and particular science fiction, tend to tell us a lot about our present, and it is quite telling that we have spent decades imagining all sorts of horrors while ignoring the biggest threats from history, namely viruses. The 20th century was defined by the two global wars, and after that technology remained at the forefront of our fears, from atomic weapons to loss of control at the hands of our mechanical creations.
But history teaches us that the biggest killers tend to be disease. Europe conquered the Americas with small-pox. Malaria remains one of the largest killers in history. We imagine dystopian scenarios while ignoring the most likely threats, and this includes climate change.
There’s an interesting disconnect in many people’s minds as a result. It seems like the clear assumption for so many people is that “it can’t happen to me”, so go dance the Conga. Another surprising mindset has been the denial of reality from right-wingers and libertarians. Here’s a threat that can’t be shot, so it’s not a real threat.
So perhaps we need better dystopias in the future. More virus dramas please!