Taking an International Communication class over the summer, and during a pandemic, I wondered what that might entail. Much to my surprise, the professor focused the entire semester on pandemics and how their existence relates to global communication. A virus would not be my first thought as a communication vehicle but it is just that – communicative. There were several tasks to complete and with much hesitation and anxiety, we all set out to complete them while we hunkered down at home, learning remotely.
Our first assignment was to watch the movie “Contagion.” I was struck by the amazing correlation between the current pandemic and the one conjured up by Scott Z. Burns, the writer of the film, and Steven Soderburgh, the director of the film. The movie was produced nine years ago, so in this case is life imitating art, or is this all just an unfortunate coincidence? The film had licensed doctors and epidemiologists on set who were hired to offer expert advice on the script. True to form, I think they believed then that their film was more reality than a work of fiction as it was presented as at the time.
The second assignment was to watch a PBS documentary called “Influenza 1918.” After watching this film, I realized that Americans have already lived through a similar situation to the one that we are living through today when a pandemic struck during World War I. We were sending American soldiers overseas who were sick with the flu and they were infecting others — more soldiers were dying from this virus than from the war itself.
The third assignment was to read a book called “The Plague,” written by Albert Camus, which tells the story of the effects of a viral outbreak in a small town in France — a story reminiscent of the reality we are living in today. The relationship between the different characters in this book, as well as the reaction and response from the French government, were hauntingly similar to the circumstances in the movie “Contagion,” to the documentary “Influenza 1918” and to what we are all experiencing right now.
While the only reference to pandemics most people in our lifetime have had has been in the form of art, the study of pandemics in our modern times goes beyond films and novels – interestingly enough, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a report, “Flu Season: U.S. Public Health Preparedness and Response,” back in December of 2019 stating that a highly contagious virus was not only expected but that we would be unprepared for it. “The Crimson Contagion” was a government-run simulation exercise that included many states, such as New York. The exercise ran from January to August 2019 until the program was shut down by the U.S. government. The report mentions this contagion exercise and it now raises a lot of questions about how our state and country was so well versed regarding this type of simulated virus practice less than a year prior to being so surprised and unprepared for an actual event of this nature. Why was this program terminated with no action plan? If the government knew this was going to come, how is it that we were so unprepared? We should not only have learned from this simulated practice, but also from our real life response to the pandemic of 1918, so that we do not repeat this devastation again.
The last devastating virus of this nature took place when St. John’s University was only 48 years old. At that time, we witnessed loss of clergy, faculty and students who were fighting in World War I. As we now anticipate our sesquicentennial year, the lesson to learn is that through all of the precautions we are taking by wearing face masks, social distancing and washing our hands we can slow down the virus until a vaccine can be safely administered. That was what I learned over the summer while sheltering in place.