• Keeping track. (Rare Television Ltd)Source: Rare Television Ltd
A 2018 experiment tested the UK's preparedness for a pandemic. Was anyone paying attention?
Anthony Morris

26 Mar 2020 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2020 - 6:18 PM

The most frightening thing about the coronavirus sweeping the globe is that it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Scientists knew that a pandemic was coming; warnings about our lack of preparedness weren’t hard to find. It was only two years ago that the BBC aired Contagion, a one-hour special (Now streaming at SBS On Demand) predicting exactly the situation we’re currently in. Watching it now, it’s scary to see just how much they got right.

Phase one of the BBC’s experiment involved the small town of Haslemere, Surrey, where volunteers were given phone apps that would register as “infected” if they came too close to Contagion’s host and mathematician Dr Hannah Fry, who was “Patient Zero”. Phase two involved a different app and a national setting, where over the course of 24 hours “infectious” volunteers would have their activity tracked to show just how rapidly a deadly disease would multiply and spread across the UK.

Unfortunately for our chances of getting a good night’s sleep any time soon, the answer turns out to be “very rapidly indeed”, but at least the volunteers look pleased when they’re told they’ve infected and killed huge swathes of their friends and neighbours.

This ruthless example of cold mathematics lays out the chilling facts about exponential growth in a way that puts most zombie movies to shame. You get it, you give it to someone else but you’ve still got it, they give it to other people but they still have it, and as the many helpful but terrifying infographics quickly explain, soon everybody has it. And it’s frighteningly easy to get; as one volunteer says, “the one time I did go out, I got infected”.

It doesn’t help that the predictions about the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic have rapidly proven to be way off the mark. Back in 2017 a virus was the biggest threat to the UK, according to the UK government’s official list of risks; fortunately, according to Fry, “dotted around the country are secret depots housing vast stockpiles, all poised for the next big outbreak”. Depots so secret the current UK government doesn’t seem to have known about them let alone what to do with them, if their actual response to COVID-19 is any guide.

While the virtual plague is ravaging the UK, emergency medic Dr Javid Abdelmoneim is taking a look at what can be done to prevent this looming disaster. His examination of the role vaccines will play isn’t exactly reassuring, and that’s with an estimated time to get an effective method of prevention up and running of around four months. (In the present day, the best estimates of experts at the time of writing, put a readily available COVID-19 vaccine at least 18 months away.) 

In between the explanations of how viruses work and how we do (or do not) have immunity to them, there’s an awful lot of useful historical information here to help you sound knowledgeable while texting family and friends from your social isolation bunker. Did you know that the once again relevant 1918 “Spanish Flu” – which killed around a hundred million people in the wake of World War I – almost certainly didn’t start in Spain?

Spain was a neutral country not under wartime censorship at the time, so when people started dying, the media there could report on it freely. The lesson is twofold: one, naming diseases after regions is wrong, and two, accurate information is a vital part of successfully stopping the spread of infectious diseases.

Which is what makes this very informative special so useful. By talking about a fictional outbreak, it’s able to provide a clear-eyed look at the dangers a virus poses to society. Even if you’ve been keeping up-to-date with all the latest news and predictions, this is a vital look at how easily a virus can spread through a population unless serious containment measures are taken.

There’s also some handy hints – literally: washing your hands regularly really is crucial in slowing down the spread of a virus.

Beyond the information though, what makes Contagion so compelling is the way it mixes spot-on prediction with a soothing look back at a time when all this wasn’t a matter of life and death. The experts knew it was a matter of if, not when a deadly flu or flu-like virus would break out across the globe, and they’re trying to get across how urgent the need for real action is here. But for the victims of this virtual pandemic in their quiet English town, it’s still all pleasingly abstract, a looming disaster they don’t really need to worry about.

Contagion is a warning from our complacent past. If only we’d listened to it.

Contagion premiered at 9:40pm on SBS on Sunday 29 March and is now streaming at SBS On Demand.

Follow the author here: @morrbeat

Stay up to date on coronavirus in your language at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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