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In case you hadn't noticed, Ebola has kind of become a hot topic in our news media. The 24-hour news stations are broadcasting around-the-clock coverage of the dangerous disease, and fear is on high around the country as a result. But while most people are afraid of a larger outbreak and their organs turning to mush and dripping out their orifices, it turns out that's not what scares the screenwriter behind the 2011 Steven Soderbergh-directed outbreak thriller Contagion. Instead, he's made much more nervous by the atmosphere that the fear creates, and the politics that use it as a tool.
Recently peaking with The Wrap, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns noted that science and research is currently doing its job containing the Ebola virus, and with enough support and resources delivered to the right people there should really be no larger worry about its spread. But while the CDC seems to have things under control, panic is still spreading thanks to a nice mix of misinformation and political maneuverings. "What scares me more than Ebola are the more mundane viruses of stupidity and fear and partisan politics," Burns said.
And Burns is in a position to know one or two things about viruses, the way they spread, and what to expect from societal reaction. When I spoke with Burns a few years ago, he revealed that he did more than his fair share of homework while writing the script for Contagion - including taking meetings with leading doctors and researchers like Dr. Larry Brilliant, who played a huge part in the World Heath Organization's smallpox eradication program in the 1970s, and Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University. He also took a trip to the Center for Disease Control and learned about government protocols and "risk and threat assessment." All of the work was done towards trying to make Contagion as realistic as possible - and looking at the Ebola crisis now, Burns believes that he succeeded. Said the screenwriter,
"Those were ideas that Steven and I wanted to communicate in the movie. And it was interesting to see today that CNN was attributing the falloff in the stock market to Ebola fears, because that's something else we talked about when we were doing Contagion."
Knowing what he knows, Burns has seen a lot of what he perceives to be mistakes unfold over the last few weeks in regard to Ebola. Noting that it's not helping anyone when the Republicans blame the Democrats and when the Democrats blame the Republicans, he says that situations have been mishandled from the very beginning, from the "incredibly inefficient and poorly orchestrated" response in West Africa to letting "a nurse with a fever to get on a commercial flight."
One of the big differences between the events in Contagion and this Ebola scare, however, is the fact that Scott Z. Burns wrote about a whole new kind of virus, while Ebola is something we've been researching for decades. Still, that doesn't really raise Burns' confidence in the way things have been going with the situation. "Even with our experience we're making a lot of rookie mistakes," he said.