Will 'Contagion' Wake Up Our Politicians?

“Contagion” is one of the few Hollywood thrillers that actually debunks conspiracy theories. In most thrillers, the bad guys work for a multinational corporation, or maybe the CIA or the Pentagon. But in this film, the villain is a naturally occurring killer virus. What? You mean the enemy isn’t big business? Or big government?

Yes, that’s right, the mass-killing enemy comes straight from the bosom of Mother Nature. And so “Contagion” poses a challenge to the political ideology of both the left and the right.

The new film, which opened last Friday, is a certified blue-chip production, featuring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and a huge ensemble cast--including even a cameo by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. And it is doing well at the box office, ranking #1 over the weekend.

Perhaps the success of “Contagion” has to do with its message, which syncs up with the 9/11 commemorations past weekend.

The film argues that some causes are worth dying for; officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other emergency workers, confronting an epidemic that will kill millions, go bravely forth into the hot zone to aid the sick and gather information about their symptoms. And so director Steven Soderbergh--perhaps best known for the smirky caper film “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels--makes a somber choice, dealing with a serious topic in a responsible way.

Yes, conspiracy movies can be entertaining, just as conspiracies themselves provide entertainment. After all, conspiracy stories are a kind of mystery puzzle, and audiences love solving puzzles. In addition, a part of us enjoys thinking that global, or even galactic, conspirators have nothing better to do than fool with us and our lives.

In a weird way, it’s kind of flattering to think, for example, that aliens would care enough to swoop down from outer space to spy on us--maybe even have sex with us. And if the government is covering it all up, well, that’s all the more delicious.

Indeed, another recent movie, “Apollo 18,” works the conspiracy angle hard; it even includes a guerrilla marketing site, which tells us, “This website was forcibly censored. Its contents can be seen in the film. DISCOVER THE TRUTH.” So pay your $10, suckers, and the truth will set you free. Happily, “Apollo 18” has been a box-office bomb.

For its part, “Contagion” works real-world territory. Epidemics are real. Bubonic plague, back in the 14th century, carried away a third of Europe. And the 1918-19 influenza epidemic killed perhaps 50 million people worldwide, about three percent of the world’s population. And of course, AIDS has killed some 30 million people worldwide over the last three decades, although scientific progress has reduced this killer disease, in the U.S. at least, to a mostly manageable ailment.

More recently, the viruses behind SARS and H1N1 have not proved as deadly as some feared. Yet even so, H1N1 is estimated to have killed about 7,000 Americans in 2009-10, and new “superbugs,” such as NDM-1, lurk on the horizon. And if none of these outbreaks prove to be as deadly as past contagions, that’s most likely a tribute to the forces of scientific medicine and public health.

Over the last century, the overall U.S. death rate from infectious disease has fallen by 93 percent.

Yet “Contagion” goes even further to debunk conspiracy theorizing--the film presents an Internet activist as the human villain. Jude Law, playing a character with the evocative name of Alan Krumwiede, uses the Internet to propagate irresponsible conspiracy theories, accusing the government and big pharmaceutical companies of manipulating the epidemic for power and profit. And yet it is Krumwiede who is the manipulator; first, he sells quack medicines, and second, he is working with a hedge fund that bets that pharma stock prices will fall every time Krumwiede attacks them on his blog.

So who are the heroes of “Contagion”? Well, the CDC, for one, but the larger heroes are two pillars of order in society: dedicated scientists and government officials. Scientists and bureaucrats are both shown as flawed, but the movie still credits them with finally stopping a pandemic that killed 26 million people worldwide, and that could have killed billions. And as we have seen, the movie has a leg to stand on, since real-world scientists have, in fact, achieved those sorts of life-saving gains in the last hundred years.

So killer bugs challenge the ideology of both left and right.

Let’s start with the left. As the film makes clear, the world is full of contagion. And so that reality argues strongly for secure borders and thorough inspections of people and goods coming into the U.S. Indeed, open borders and political correctness have allowed terrible diseases to make a comeback. Immigrants, legal and illegal, have brought with them new strains of tuberculosis, as well as malaria, West Nile virus, and dengue fever. Why are these afflictions returning? The answer can be summed up in four words: because we let them. And oh, by the way, as the movie chronicles a raging killer epidemic, the subject of health insurance didn’t come up once; when a medical crunch comes, you want real medicine, not government health insurance. Care doesn’t help a patient nearly as much as a cure.

Meanwhile, on the right, Tea Partiers and libertarians are going to have to deal with the reality that public health requires public knowledge of who lives in the country. As with homeland security, biological security depends on knowing who might be carrying what. If the goal is to put a stop to an epidemic, the key issue isn’t individual freedom, or personal empowerment, or market forces; the issue is mobilizing scientific and industrial resources to find a cure or vaccine--and then delivering that life-saving medicine to a population of 310 million.

So “Contagion” illustrates a significant point: Neither political party, Democratic or Republican, has come to grips with the genuine public-health challenges that America faces.

Cancer kills about 600,000 Americans every year--now that’s a real epidemic. Yet politicians in both parties have done their best to ignore it. Over the last three years, we have had fights back and forth over ObamaCare, but neither side has raised the issue of cancer care.

Another unaddressed epidemic is Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), which afflicts some six million Americans today; that number is expected to quadruple in the next four decades. AD is not a quick killer; it is a slow killer, leaving its victims to suffer in dementia for years, even decades, in labor- and cost-intensive nursing homes. Alzheimer’s today is costing the US economy $172 billion a year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and the cumulative cost is headed up to $20 trillion by 2050.

These epidemics, cancer and AD, may lack the cinematic flair of a mysterious virus, but in their plodding progression, they are just as deadly--and costly.

In “Contagion,” Hollywood has made an honest and constructive parable about medical peril. So maybe now it’s time for politicians to put on their own show, demonstrating to the rest of us that they understand the need to grapple with the epidemics staring all of us in the face.

What’s needed? We could start our action agenda with tort reform, regulatory reform, intellectual property reform, and the creation of new kinds of public-private partnerships to mobilize resources on behalf of cures.

To do all this, politicians will have to overcome ideological stumbling blocks on both sides of the partisan divide. But we’re worth the effort. And so the voters should stand ready to reward those leaders who can see that some problems just need to be solved. And fast.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.