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:
“While it may seem like the crisis is fully upon us, it will get worse”
That’s how the online official bootleg of the current edition of C-Lab introduces the five pithy and dystopian futures in its article, “Rogue States of Mind“. China (financial implosion) and Russia (collapsing energy revenues) both get a dystopia of their own, along with spreading drought and a boomer-led health crisis.
My favourite – because it works on several levels – is the picture of America deciding to sell off to other nations its “underperforming units”, meaning those states of the union which are no longer regarded as viable. Joe Biden gets to make the announcement because of his “working class credibility”.
Thanks to BLDG BLOG for the tip.
In summary, he argues that election day represents a unique conjunction of the end of three long-run cycles: economic, political, and generational.
I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map, about the 1854 cholera epidemic in Soho, London, that proved to be the breakthrough in linking cholera to infected drinking water, partly though John Snow‘s famous map. The book – which is wonderfully readable – is interesting for several reasons; as a social history of Victorian England; second, in tracing the battle between competing scientific and medical explanations of cholera; and third, for some reflections on the vulnerability of the modern city.
The most interesting new word I’ve heard so far this year is ‘solastalgia‘, buried in some notes that Matt Jones made at a recent lecture by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. It was coined five years ago by an Australian, Glenn Albrecht, and seeks to capture notions of place-related distress. Albrecht was quoted in an Australian article thus:
Solastalgia describes the pain experienced when the place a person lives is under assault and destruction, a loss of a sense of belonging to a particular place and a sense of desolation about its disappearance.
What happens if the pervasive chemicals in the everyday products we buy and use are the reason that we generally feel below par so much of the time? It could cause a backlash by consumers who increasingly regard their well-being as important to them. The thought comes both because of the wave of stories about product recalls from Chinese factories, and the recent House of Lords Select Committee report which said that allergies were reaching “epidemic proportions” – without their experts seeming to have much consensus as to why.