Thursday, October 6, 2011

Six Things I Learned from the Movie "Contagion"

Note:  If you have not seen the movie Contagion and wish to remain spoiler free, read no further.

 You were warned ...

 Watching the movie Contagion was an eye opener for how a truly virulent and lethal pandemic could threaten to collapse society as we know it.   I had already watched the special “After Armageddon” on the History Channel, so I had an idea of what might occur.  That being said, here are some points I picked up:
Unlucky blow:  Our index patient infects a gambler.
 1.  We touch things daily that could bring an infectious agent into our homes.    From door knobs to other people’s cell phones to drinking glasses, everything we touch could be a vector for disease to spread.   In the movie, the index patient, portrayed by Gwenyth Paltrow, spreads the infection to a person who touches her martini glass (waiter), to a person sitting next to her at a bar who picks up her cell phone (tourist), and to a man at the same craps table (guy who hasn’t or can’t do the math on how unlikely he is to win in a casino).  She also has an affair with an old flame while on a layover in Chicago and manages to infect him.  Karma:  it’s a pain.  Which leads me to my next point …
 2.  A pandemic is a plane flight away.  Paltrow’s character is infected in China, and in the course of a few days spreads it to Macao, Chicago, Europe (through the cell phone lady) and Minneapolis. Once she gets home, she infects her son, who in turn infects his schoolmates and the staff there, and then those infected kids take the illness home.   At one point, the Centers for Disease Control, in the midst of trying to track the plague, realizes the horrifying geometric progression of the epidemic.  It’s a chilling revelation disclosed through scientific jargon.
Matt Damon leads his daughter on a food-finding mission.
 3. When people get scared, they make very foolish decisions.  If you live in an area that is prone to hurricanes or other natural events like sudden, intense snowstorms, you know what I am talking about here -- every time one of these events looms, what happens in the grocery stores?  Panic!  The bread, milk and other staples fly off the shelves.   I have often wondered how stores could run out of stock so fast on these items.  The answer is that they don't have stockrooms anymore.  
 Many companies now use what is called just-in-time ordering;  when you run out of Widget A on the shelf, a truck is backing up to the store with a case of Widget As on it to re-stock the shelf.   The problem is that this system is highly vulnerable to the slightest disruption.  This is a very interesting report from the American Trucking Association describing what happens when trucks stop rolling.  Why is this important?

If the garbage trucks aren't running, why are the lights on?
  4.  When a pandemic or other national emergency strikes, essential services WILL be disrupted.    The movie depicts essential services like police protection, garbage pickup, and and transportation services all shutting down as the pandemic strikes down the humans charged with keeping society running through illness and fear of the illness.  Grocery stores rapidly run out of food, commerce breaks down, and the military is forced to step in to control order and begin distribution of food to ensure people don't starve to death.  And guess what?  They don't have enough to go around.
That being said, Hollywood loves a happy ending.  Cell phones remain operational.  The electricity stays on, allowing people to heat their homes and light up the dark.   Vaccine manufacturers are able to synthesize inoculations on automated assembly lines.   The whole time the viewer must ask, "if the garbage can't get picked up, how are the powers that be going to keep the lights on?"  In the end, society is able to recover.  I have my doubts about whether this would happen in a real event, or at least with the rapidity it seems to recover in the film.
5. Operational security is paramount.   If you have some sort of disaster preparations, keep it to yourself.   The lead CDC investigator's wife is terrorized during a home invasion in which the culprits break in and demand vaccine, reasoning that since the investigator works for the federal agency, he would be in line to get it first.  This investigator had been interviewed extensively on television regarding the epidemic and the home invaders were able to find his home.  Which just goes to show you ...
6. When the merde hits the ventilateur, you'd better have some way to defend yourself, because the have-nots are coming for your stuff.  When I refer to the have-nots, I am referring to everyone who didn't have the foresight to prepare for emergencies, not some generic class label for the poor.  You could have a million dollars in the bank account, but if you have less than three days of food in your house and the economy breaks down due to financial, economic, natural, or biologic disasters, guess what?  You are a have-not.  The movie shows mobs looting stores and homes, even siphoning gas from parked cars.  At one point, the main character, portrayed by Matt Damon, raids one of his neighbor's houses for a shotgun after a house nearby is looted and shots are fired.  Remember, the police stopped showing up for work.  If you are looking for them to defend you, you are looking in the wrong direction.
What You Can Do ....
1.  Practice good hygiene.  The pandemic started because someone got exposed to a virus and didn't wash her hands.   Carry some hand sanitizer and use it.  Regularly clean your home with sanitary wipes.  My wife contracted H1N1 (swine) flu two years ago, and my son and I did not contract it.  How?  Twice a day I donned gloves and used disinfecting wipes to clean all door handles, remote controls, faucets, light switches, etc.  Any surfaces that could transmit the virus was cleaned.   I also washed our sheets and kept bath towels and washclothes cleaned and sanitized with bleach.  
2.  Prepare in advance. This is the essence of prepping.  Have sufficient food and supplies stocked for at least one month so that you can limit your exposures outside the home.  If a pandemic strikes, you will want to stay home as much as possible to reduce your risk of contracting the illness.    Also, be aware that essential services may fail.  Have an alternative means of heating your home, procuring or storing water, fuel, etc.
3.  Practice operational security (opsec).   The best way to defeat looters is to make them think there is nothing in your house worth looting.   As much as possible, keep your preps secret. Buy food in small amounts so as not to attract the unwanted attention of nosy neighbors.  Don't store all your food in one place in the home.  We are clearing out a clothes closet with the intention of putting some our our stockpile there on the opposite end of the house from our main stockpile.  Have a way to secure your home and defend it.
4. Change your mindset to understand that if it gets bad enough that you need government help, the government probably is not going to be able to help you.  See Item 4 above.  There is a riot at a food distribution point in the film when the National Guard runs out of  food.  Don't be a burden on the system; free yourself from it. 

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