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What 'World War Z' can teach us about pandemics

Tevi Troy

Barack Obama is America’s most famous pop culture fan, enjoying movies, TV and tooling around on his iPad. Cultural scolds might deride these tendencies, but occasionally pop culture can prove instructive to our leaders. Take, for example, Brad Pitt’s hit movie World War Z.

The film made $66 million in its opening weekend, tapping into widespread concerns about societal breakdown. The film is obviously a work of fiction — flesh-eating zombies don’t exist, and viruses don’t fully manifest in 12 seconds, as in the movie. But the film is not so much about the zombies as it is about the ability of governments to prepare for and respond to a lethal, extremely contagious virus. In the movie, government comes up short, at least initially.

The first third of the film is about the failure of most countries to deal with an unknown and deadly virus. This is probably an accurate reflection of where we would stand in similar circumstances. As the film notes, “Airlines are the perfect delivery system,” allowing a virus to spread quickly around the world.

The film also shows how fast societal breakdown could take place. After Pitt fires a rifle in a looter-filled supermarket, a policeman appears, prompting viewers to wonder how the protagonist will demonstrate that he acted in self-defense. But the policeman ignores Pitt and joins the looters, highlighting a real challenge disaster planners face: First responders cannot always be counted on in a crisis. Most will bravely do their jobs, but planners must assume that some will not. Some estimates had one-third of the New Orleans police department deserting during Katrina, for instance.

When Pitt hears an emergency broadcast over the radio, it only says to stay indoors and try to maintain a supply of water. This information is wholly inadequate. In a crisis, government officials need to provide helpful and honest information to citizens without inducing panic. During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, Vice President Joe Biden said on “Today” that he “wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places,” a misguided comment that could have driven people away from air travel and public transportation had it not been walked back by the White House.

Governments’ responses to pandemic outbreaks can vary widely. During the 1919 Spanish flu, St. Louis wisely called for social distancing, warning against large-scale gatherings that could spread the virus. Philadelphia did not, and suffered a much higher death rate.
In the film, North Korea takes an extreme and predictably brutal approach to preventing the spread of the virus (hint: it involves teeth). Israel builds a wall to protect itself, a solution that, according to the film, stems from officials’ fears about existential threats facing the Jewish people. While Israel’s wall protects it, at least for a while, Israel also recognizes that our shared humanity outweighs political differences. When Pitt expresses surprise that Israel is welcoming immigrants from its mostly unfriendly neighbors, an Israeli explains that every uninfected entrant is one less zombie they have to kill. Orthodox Jews and Palestinians, not usually allies, sing together, recognizing that pathogens don’t respect borders or nationalities, and that we are all in this together.

The film’s virus originates in Asia, which also tracks reality. Pandemic planners have long maintained a watchful eye on that region, which originated the SARS virus of 2003, as well as many strains of avian flu, including the current H7N9 strain that has killed 37 people. One of the problems pandemic planners face in Asia is that of noncooperative governments. China did not share accurate information in real time during the SARS outbreak a decade ago, although Chinese officials have been much better about providing information during the current H7N9 outbreak.

Finally, the last part of the movie is set in a research lab, where the characters pursue a promising opportunity for defeating the virus. This rings true as well, as the best hope against a pandemic lies not in military might, but with the scientists of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the areas of countermeasures, international cooperation and pandemic planning, the United States has made tremendous strides over the past decade, beginning with a conscious push in these areas during the George W. Bush administration. At the same time, as the movie helps show, we still have a long way to go to prepare for lethal and as yet unknown pathogens. Obama might want to load this one on his iPad.

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