Contagion cornavirus
(Image: Contagion)

Contagion (2011). World War Z (2013). Outbreak (1995). 

Aside from all being fictitious medical disaster blockbusters tracking the spread of a deadly virus, the films share a common enemy: the non-Western world. 

In Contagion, an infected pig in a Macau restaurant gives the virus to patient zero. While patient zero isn’t identified in World War Z, the zombie-like infected are first encountered by Indian troops. And the deadly Motaba virus that Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman fight off in Outbreak is discovered in the African jungle. 

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The stuff of Hollywood dystopian fantasists appears to have become a reality in the past two weeks, with more than 7700 cases of a deadly novel coronavirus recorded worldwide. 

At the time of writing, all but 68 of these infections have taken place in mainland China, where 170 people have died. 

The virus is believed to have originated from the city of Wuhan and rapidly spread across the nation, with infected patients presenting in several other countries including the United States, Germany, Japan, and Australia.

So had Contagion’s producers done their homework before choosing China as the source of a global pandemic? Or are these flicks just another example of Western xenophobia?

According to Dr Peter Collignon, Professor of Infectious Diseases at the ANU Medical School, while there are some factors that aid the spread of the novel coronavirus in China, many major pandemics of the last 100 years started in Western nations. 

“All the things that make disease more likely are poor water supply, crowded housing, poor resources,” Collignon told Crikey

“China has got over a billion people, and they live in close proximity to one another, and are socioeconomically disadvantaged compared to Australia.

“With influenza, a lot of influenza was thought to originate in China because pigs are thought to be a way of mixing influenza virus amongst the population, and there are a lot of pigs and poor water supply in China.

“But we need to take into perspective that there have been a number of major spreads [of disease] around the world in the last 100 years where China was not involved.”

The Spanish Flu is believed to have originated in the US state of Kansas, and the 2009 outbreak of swine flu appeared to start in Mexico.

“The short answer is yes, we are biased in blaming the Chinese,” Collingnon said. 

“I think all of us … think foreigners are scary to us. It’s not misinterpreting the facts [to think China could produce viral outbreaks] — it can occur. But we tend to be selective in our memory, and we need to avoid that.”

University of Western Australia Emeritus Professor Michael Levine, whose work has explored the philosophy of film and race, told Crikey that the enemy in a film is “reflective of our fear of the ‘other’, a way of outsiders offloading [blame] for something onto the foreign”.

“Even in action films, during the Cold War it was always Russia [that was the enemy], and then when Russia wasn’t the enemy, it switched to oriental countries,” Levin said.

“When you are afraid, when you hate somebody, you are going to imagine and project onto the ‘other’ qualities that justify your hate and your fear … We hope that these people and these countries are worse than they are.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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