I recently watched the film Contagion. Of course, it was fascinating how much the first part of the film (where the virus appears and spreads) got right. It was almost like watching a dramatization of COVID-19. But even more fascinating was how much the second part of the film (the riots and government response) got wrong.
In the film, society almost collapses. There are food riots, looting, everyone for themselves. It is also assumed that this is in part because police operates at only 75% strength and so cannot protect ordinary citizens who in turn turn to violence and despair. On the other hand, the central US government acts almost heroically, coordinates the response, deploys the military, guides the discovery of the vaccine, while other countries depend on it to lead the way (at one point almost petulantly demanding to know what the US is doing to solve the problem).
Of course, reality was exactly the inverse. There were no food riots. Notoriously, the only thing that people panic bought was …toilet paper. That was basically the entire extent of the Hobbesian collapse brought upon by the pandemic. People in the US did riot during the pandemic, yes. But it was most decidedly not out of nihilistic despair, but under the Black Lives Matter slogan, an essentially political struggle that is motivated not by fear of other citizens but by love for them and fear of the militarized arm of the government, the police. The common people did not turn on each other, the strength of the social fabric can even be claimed to have strengthened. Think about the public demonstration of love for fellow humans that mask wearing represents every single day. And ordinary Americans overwhelmingly support it.
So the movie got the reaction of common people wrong. But it also got the US government wrong. It was precisely the US federal government under Trump that has been the weakest link in the pandemic response. The government proved to not be the ruthless competent machine that organizes things and keeps society from collapsing. If anything, the only Hobbesian moments during the pandemic were when armed right wingers started killing BLM protestors, at the encouragement of the president. Not to mention that the things about police not being able to stop riots because 25% of cops don’t show up is exactly the hyper-reactionary fantasy of the “thin blue line”. Finally, it has not been “the US” that came up with the vaccine, instead there are multiple candidates being developed across the world. In fact the US government’s response to the pandemic overall has been abysmal compared to those of governments of many other countries.
In all, the contrast between the bleak prediction of the film and reality gives me some hope in Humanity. We are not the brutes of Hollywood’s imagination, instead humans are perfectly capable, on aggregate, of collaboration and resilience.