Watching Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), in light of a year of COVID-19, I was struck by the accuracy of much of the writers’ vision. A zoonotic disease crosses over from increasingly under pressure animal populations, trapped in the ever-shrinking wilderness by encroaching human industries and populations. As people fall ill, cities are placed in quarantine; key personnel is simultaneously vital to the public health response and most likely to be exposed; conspiracy theorists and hucksters spread doubt, fake cures, and mistrust of government. Then – after much excitement – a vaccine is created and distributed. It’s a decent film sharing a number of tropes with movies like Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008), or even something like Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013).
In Contagion, panic buying gives way to full-scale looting and anarchy, the suggestion being that the social norms of 21st-century western society are a mere skim across the surface of violent currents. This is an idea shared by a lot of apocalyptic fiction and is stoked by the way in which our news environment distributes the novel, the extreme, the telegenic, and the shocking. Increasingly, the fiction and non-fiction media we consume gives the impression that societal collapse is not just one possibility among many, but actually a close risk. As a recent and stark example, when lie-stoked Trump supporters swarmed through the security outside the US Capitol, it played into this idea that large numbers will resort to violence if given the opportunity, and that we have limited or underprepared defenses.
What really strikes me, however, is the precise opposite: we barely talk about or credit the fact that our societies in the West are among the most resilient to ever exist. Our reality, in fact, differs significantly from the thrill-driven need for drama, for something to be at perilous risk, that underpins even the most well-researched films. In the past year of COVID-19, a majority of people, not just in one country but across the globe, adopted the precautions recommended by health experts. Faced with lockdown measures, or local quarantines, vast swaths of humanity simply got on with what was required in a calm and sensible fashion.
“Wait!” Some will say. “Haven’t you seen the anti-vaxxers? The anti-lockdown protestors? The storming of the Capitol? The attempt to force entry to the Reichstag in Germany?” Yes, I have. In fact, last summer I witnessed in person anti-lockdown protests in London, Bristol, and Edinburgh. What struck me, ultimately, was not their power but their weakness. I saw small numbers of people, speaking nonsense pulled from half-baked films and comic books, a bare hundred people in each case, in cities of half-a-million to ten-million respectively. Terrible though the Capitol and Reichstag incidents were, ultimately the numbers involved were tiny compared to the democratic power ranged against them. They may have filled a TV screen, but a spectacular and tiny minority shouldn’t be mistaken for massed ranks of lunatics.
But there’s something tragic about the hopelessness of belief in societal collapse. It provides justification for doing the worst one can do; for not doing the next best thing; for shrugging off or denigrating others’ activism as pointless do-gooding; for refusing to support the large scale legislation and government activity aimed at doing better. If it’s all going to go wrong, who cares? Why bother? That’s why it’s such a corrosive component of our modern fiction and non-fiction.
This is not an argument for complacency: appreciating what is good does not mean ignoring what could be better, or saying we should stop trying to improve. It just means we might want to take a moment, while being bombarded by images of the worst, to recognize that COVID-19 is ample proof that few among us will turn on our neighbors when faced with hard times. Our governments continue to function (to varying degrees); supply chains keep the majority of people fed (though, of course, existing inequalities in access to food and nutrition continue and are exacerbated); law enforcement hasn’t tipped over into martial law, nor does it need to. While every society can be criticized, while incredible injustices and threats are out there, it’s worth appreciating that we have built societies that give the stability and safety that are fundamental desires for the majority of people – one we should try to extend even further to the weak, the vulnerable, and those not under its protection.
There are two factors at play: first, the citizens of our nations, while we feast on fictionalized (and real) tales of murder and awfulness, mostly just want to live their lives in peace and are not interested in preying upon one another. Second, our economic and political power is heavily diffused giving strong infrastructure and firm foundations. I first contemplated the latter during 9/11. The entire senior leadership of the company my aunt worked for died in the attack on the World Trade Center. This was terrifying, shocking…But by close of business the same day, leadership responsibilities had passed to another national subsidiary, and the company endured (as it does to this day). If the intention of the terrorists was to collapse the leadership apparatus of society, they not only failed — they provided ample proof of the stupidity of such an aim.
Consider the Pentagon. If the hijackers had succeeded there might have been even more massive casualties…But multiple military and intelligence bodies across the US would have filled the breach in leadership while day-to-day operations at facilities and bases continued without a glitch. That’s the reality of modern institutions: we humans who operate the mechanisms are eminently replaceable – that’s a feature, not a glitch.
A further example was provided back in 1963: when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson was installed two hours and eight minutes later. Essentially, faced with a leadership consisting of thousands of individuals across a country, dislocating society in a way that leads to its collapse would require a vast nuclear assault – and even then would have to reckon with people’s essential peaceableness.
I find this a reassuring vision. I’ve heard much this year from people abandoning faith in mainstream information, reading anxiety-inducing articles about fringe personalities delving into survivalism and ‘prepping’. I’ve seen the general rejection of hope in favor of cynical shrugs at the idea that anything gets better or ever will. I reject that hopelessness. Claims of our fragility are predominantly the domain of fiction, a place we turn to when we want to be scared. Such claims have little to do with what really happened during this global pandemic: people stepped up, wearing masks and social distancing, and helping one another. That gives me hope that we can weather other storms, that we can make things better. At least it makes me want to try.