As the coronavirus escalates to an official global pandemic, and America scrambles to shut down everything from movie premieres to the NBA, Slate sat down with Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who is having the surreal experience of watching the film come to life. Granted, COVID-19 is nowhere near as deadly as the fictional disease in the movie, but Burns spent a great deal of time researching how the CDC would respond to a situation like the coronavirus, and what he’s seeing right now is not great:
It is incredible to me that we are not letting the really amazing public health people in this country lead the response—that we are finding out that we don’t have enough test kits and have for some reason disbanded our pandemic-preparedness teams. When I was at the CDC researching the movie in 2009 and 2010, those people were extraordinary. It was no different than the feeling you might get if you went to a firehouse and saw how committed those first responders are to keeping people safe. Slashing the budgets of those things is something I would have never contemplated as a screenwriter. When people tell me that the movie seems to be coming true, I say to them that I never contemplated that we would have leadership in this country that would gut our defense.
Burns is referring to President Trump firing Tom Bossert from the National Security Council in 2018 and never hiring a replacement to oversee the global response to a pandemic like Ebola or the coronavirus. The decision that is believed to stem from Trump’s dislike of Obama, who created the task force, has been criticized as short-sighted in recent days. But according to Burns, that’s not even the biggest mistake the U.S. has made as the outbreak spreads:
I think the gravest mistake is not giving the space and the microphone and all of the support to the public health officials who can help guide us through this. We have really good people in this country. They need to get together and be allowed to speak to us clearly and not be filtered. I have read accounts in the press that Dr. [Anthony] Fauci isn’t really allowed to speak until Mike Pence has approved his messaging. That is concerning to me. If we are going to get through this in the best version, it is by empowering those people and giving them the resources that they need.
Despite his criticism of the current coronavirus response, Burns does offer a glimmer of hope for the days ahead:
This will sound really naïve and silly, but I really do believe this. I have incredible confidence in the scientists that I know, and I have unbelievable faith in American ingenuity. Knowing that there are people in every sector right now—whether it is microbiology or tech or whatever—who are trying to come up with ideas that will keep us safe is very heartening. I am encouraged by the ability of scientists to sort these things out, and I am grateful that the mortality rate of this virus is not like the one in the movie. I do believe that we will sort this out.
However, there is one caveat to Burns’ optimism: government leaders needs to “pull their heads out of their asses,” he says, so there’s that information.