Watching a pandemic
I’ve been watching the Flemish drama Cordon – three episodes in, seven to go – which tells the story of a pandemic arriving in Antwerp. Since one of the things that public health officials sometimes say is that we’ve been lucky so far with our pandemics, and it’s not if but when a significant killer hits us, it’s interesting to watch a fictional version of that scenario playing out.
These are just some quick impressions.
The illness itself is well-judged. Yes, it’s highly contagious, but only if you’re close enough for contact or exchange of a fluid (a sneeze, for example, can be fatal). So the rules from the public health authorities are to stay two arms-lengths apart and not to touch each other. It’s striking how socially awkward not touching is: no comforting, no shaking hands.
The cordon of the title is an exclusion zone in the city centre. It stretches around NIIDA, the medical research institute where the first patients were taken to, and the adjacent streets. It’s built from shipping containers, which has a level of irony, since the Afghan man who may be Patient Zero arrived in the city smuggled in a shipping container.
There is constant tension between the city authorities, the police, the doctor/scientists and the journalists. This is exacerbated by social media. The Mayor is asking the scientists to “give her something” so she can keep the media onside; the doctors are telling her that they can’t be certain (they also believe that the virus is mutating quickly); the journalists, of course, believe the authorities and police are holding things back from them.
One of the points of tension in the newsroom is about public responsibility as against freedom of information. The editor has had a telling off from the Mayor about not inflaming fears; the journalist thinks that people have right to know. When the journalist gets a video blog from a dying woman inside the cordon, the editor refuses him permission to use it – so he publishes it anyway, through an anonymous blog. But even the editor can’t help himself. “What we need for your blog is a top ten of epidemics through the ages.”
Business starts to break down, even outside of the cordon. It’s only a fragment of information in the story, but a kind of informal exclusion zone opens up outside the cordon, as businesses close their offices and tell people to work from home.
It doesn’t take long for food supplies to start to break down. Those inside the cordon are starting to ration food after 72 hours, and the authorities have to organise a food drop through the “sluices,” as the gates in and out of the cordon are called. By that stage there’s already some looting going on. Before the food drop, two of the research scientists are fantasising about food:
“I’d really love some chocolate.”
“Me, I’d love some spaghetti.”
Some of the toughest pressures are on the command and control structures. When the food drop goes wrong, and one of the police officers is touched by people trying to escape the cordon, the police commander leading the team sends him into the cordon – to the disgust of the other officers. Video of the incident surfaces, of course, and the commander has to explain himself to the media (“You were following the rules,” he’s told to say.) It’s a defensible position, but he doesn’t want to talk to them. Even after three days fatigue is affecting judgment.
The technologies of control are surprisingly old-fashioned. Apart from the shipping containers, there are guns and water cannon, as well as megaphones and loudspeakers attached to vehicles.
Despite everything people try to maintain rituals. In the research institute they’re having to burn the bodies of the dead, because the morgue is getting over-crowded. The instruction is to try to keep some of the ashes so they can be given to relatives afterwards.
Other people have visited this territory before, of course, including the movie business. Belgium isn’t a big television market, so the production budget for Cordon is smaller than for, say, 28 Days Later. This has the effect of making the aesthetic more realistic. It feels more as if it would or could happen like this.
It is a scenario of course, but does it feel like a reasonable one? So far, three episodes in, it feels like it is. And I suspect that things will get worse before they get better.
The BBC trailer is here: