What Hollywood got right about pandemic medics

What Hollywood got right about pandemic medics

Wednesday, 6th May 2020
Contagion (Credit: Warner Bros)
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Dr Charlie Easmon, a specialist in public health, assesses how the stars of fictionalised pandemics stack up against real-world heroes

More than 30 years ago, I sat in the St George’s Medical School library in Tooting, south London, contemplating a framed cowhide that belonged to a beast called Blossom. The hide came from the cow that the great 18th-century physician Edward Jenner, the founder of immunology, used in an experiment to demonstrate his vaccine against smallpox. Fast forward 33 years and here we are during a pandemic that will last for many months to come.

I have lectured on pandemics and was noted, at a conference of private school bursars, mostly ex-army types, for getting them to do the Mexican wave as a way of demonstrating the rolling spread of an infection – something that Boris Johnson’s advisors should have known when they failed to stop the Cheltenham Festival.

The actor Hugh Quarshie, my friend and fellow Ghanaian, who plays doctor Ric Griffin in Holby City, and I did synchronised “jaw drops” when the locked-down set of this show (and Casualty) donated its scrubs, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS.

In the UK, the emperor has no PPE. This was epitomised by the brilliant Morten Morland’s Sunday Times cartoon in which health secretary Matt Hancock tells bemused medical staff: “You are all covering yourselves in glory.” And they mutter: “It’s all we have.”

What do feature films and TV representations of my profession tell us about how to handle a global pandemic? Are the doctors and nurses hard-working and exhausted? Are the experts infallible voices of authority? Does everyone have the same plan?

In real life, we have seen nations take different tacks while each has stressed that its approach is based on the science, but the bigger picture plays out like an anarchic Marx Brothers’ comedy.

I love the fact that in 80,000 Suspects (1963), the doctors and nurses are, indeed, hard-working but the focus is more on the moral dilemmas of one doctor cheating on his wife.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays a naughty lady who meets a ghastly early fate in Contagion (2011). Her detractors probably whoop and holler while throwing gloop into the air, but the film cleverly uses tracking shots to illustrate the spread of a Sars-like illness imported from China to the rest of the world. Sound familiar?

‘Panic in the Streets’ showed that you need brains and brawn to combat an epidemic

The conflict between hard-nosed military experts and soft liberal public health experts is well captured in Outbreak (1995). Dustin Hoffman, who loves dogs in the film and therefore must be the good guy, squares off against Donald Sutherland, who looks like he would eat children.

Certainly, the Donald character (any resemblance to any person living or dead is coincidental) has no compunction about the ultimate public-health measure of simply bombing infected people to hell. When he threatens to do this a second time in the US (in his view, Africa mattered less, of course), Hoffman gives one of his great impassioned speeches. Even the deepest cynic would ditch their bomb safely in the ocean and pass no comment on Hoffman’s never-ageing face.

Outbreak is based on the deadly Ebola virus. The scientists in the film talk us through the disease in a reassuring way, as does Kate Winslet in Contagion. In fact, her explanation of R-nought is so good that I would use the clip to teach epidemiology classes on how viruses spread. As we should all know by now, R-nought measures how contagious an infectious disease is.

In real life, we have had few scientific superstars. Our own chief scientific advisor, chief medical officer for England and deputy chief medical officer have all lost lustre as the pandemic has rolled on and the experience has belied their projections.

The cow whose hide I contemplated at the start of my medical career would be rolling in its grave at the very idea of promoting herd immunity for a disease that might not produce any.

Dr Anthony Fauci, part of Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, has both a fan club and a hate club. Many women (and men) want to have his babies, but some are convinced that he’s the Vincent Price in this particular horror movie and has sold his soul to Satan.

For conspiracy theorists, Price’s famous role in The Masque of the Red Death (1964) resonates uncannily with the age of Covid-19. In Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, the wealthy elite pull the drawbridge up behind them as the plague stalks the land outside their castle walls. And, in the modern world, an unholy alliance of Big Pharma and Big Tech allegedly conspires to track and dose us at the same time as 5G makes us glow in the dark.

So far, we have been good citizens and, mostly, stuck to lockdown but might we still see Panic in the Streets?

In this excellent 1950 film, directed by the great Elia Kazan, our good doctor, the trusty Richard Widmark, teams up with a cynical but effective hunk of an Irish cop – reminding us that you need brains and brawn to combat an epidemic.

Early in our pandemic, on 12 March, public-health expert Professor John Ashton appeared on Question Time. Just as depicted in numerous film and TV scenes, a Government smoothie immediately pooh-poohed Ashton’s legitimate concerns about allowing mass events, the impact of the disease on care homes and call for mass testing – all since proved right.

Medical and non-medical writers alike have prepared us for what we see now. There’s George Bernard Shaw in The Doctor’s Dilemma: “Who gets treated [or, in our case, tested]?” And Ibsen in An Enemy of the People: “Surely, you’re kidding, doctor – why close something popular [in our case, a football match or festival]?”

Many viewers have enjoyed former doctor Jed Mercurio’s work, from Cardiac Arrest and Bodies to Bodyguard and Line of Duty. Jed has always known how to show the compassion fatigue that comes with medical work and frequent dichotomy of the lovely chap who’s a hopeless surgeon and the sexist, playboy bastard who’s a great one (Keith Allen).

The late Michael Crichton used his medical knowledge across the wide territory of The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Westworld and ER (George Clooney, incidentally, did wonders for my love life). Crichton specialised in the consequences of following science blindly, the negative effects of well-intentioned experiments, and the reality of hard decision-making in emergencies.

When we finally reflect on this pandemic with a well-aimed retrospectoscope (no bowel prep required), we might wish that we had had the benefit of Winslet’s film character (the compassionate great explainer committed to saving lives with no herd in view), a Laurence Fishburne (the competent Centers for Disease Control maestro, who would never mislead with faulty tests) and a Dustin Hoffman (the morally upright scientist seeking a cure).

Instead, we seem to have got a dismal band of Contagion’s Jude Law (the conspiracy theorist peddling false drug dreams), Donald Sutherland (prepared to expend any number of poor people to defeat the virus) and Vincent Price (abandon the herd to its fate).

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the World Health Organization controversy. President Trump threatens to defund an organisation that the US has systematically underfunded for years, perhaps because it is led by a man who looks suspiciously like Barack Obama with a moustache. 

Well, talking of possible alternatives to WHO, if you like a bit of rock ’n’ roll (and can cope with the excessive gorgeousness of my little girl on a bat scooter), please enjoy my TEDx talk on that very subject. 

Dr Charlie Easmon MBBS MRCP MSc Public Health DTM&H DOccMed is: medical director of Your Excellent Health Service; president of the International Association of Physicians for the Overseas Services; co-founder of YEHS We Care; and co-founder of Global Health Action Strategies & Solutions.

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