WASHINGTON, April 20, 2016 — One occurred in 541 AD during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and is estimated to have killed 25 million people. Another began in Asia around 1334 and spread throughout Europe killing about 60 percent of the population. One began in 1860s China and spread around the world until 1894, killing 10 million souls.
“Plague has a remarkable place in history,” reads a post on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, “and has had enormous effects on the development of modern civilization… More recently, plague raised concerns as an important national security threat because of its potential for use by terrorists.”
And the CDC’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, just happens to be ground zero for a fictional plague outbreak in The CW’s new television series “Containment.”
The pilot episode that aired Tuesday night jumps ahead thirteen days from the present as National Guard troops, armed and wearing acrylic face guards, nervously wait in darkness. Metal doors swing open, allowing in bright daylight, as soldiers charge on to a crowded city street.
“Run!” yells a man.
“We’re trying to help you!” a soldier responds as troops pummel civilians charging them, while others soldiers pile dead bodies one atop another, lighting them on fire.
A frightened soldier, seeing a diseased man bleeding from his eyes and mouth, shoots him dead.
And so, we are introduced to a plague outbreak in a major American city and the chaos to follow in future episodes. It is at this point, however, that the story takes us back to the beginning.
Dr. Rita Sanders (Elyse Levesque), displaying flu-like symptoms, is in an isolation ward at Atlanta Midtown Hospital. She tells a fellow physician – opposite a thick pane of glass – that a patient she examined suffered from the same symptoms. The young man, she recalls, is a recent immigrant to the U.S. From Syria.
When Atlanta health officials dispatch police to apprehend “patient zero,” his father admits young Said is in the country illegally, having left Syria to escape the advances of jihadists anxious to recruit him.
As authorities take the family into custody and eventual quarantine, the father yells at an officer, “You did this to him.”
Simple minds favor conspiracy theories over medical or scientific fact, which occurred in Ebola-ravaged West Africa as rumors spread that the disease was either a hoax advanced by corrupt government officials anxious to pocket emergency funds from the developed world, or that the disease was the result of a heartless U.S. military bioweapons experiment.
Before you judge too harshly, remember it was a First World Los Angeles jury that dismissed overwhelming scientific evidence proving O.J. Simpson’s guilt in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her innocent friend, Ronald Goldman. They bought defense Attorney Johnny Cochran’s alternative theory that the entire Los Angeles Police Department was racist and conspired to incriminate his client, a popular college and pro-football star turned Hollywood actor.
Getting back to the story on The CW, Atlanta officials are still clueless concerning the seriousness of the viral outbreak when Sabine Lommers (Claudia Black) of the Department of Health and Human Services blows into town.
“Most of you don’t know me,” she tells a gathering of Atlanta’s city fathers. “But the fact that I’m here should have you worried, ‘cause I don’t get called until things get bad.”
Major Alex “Lex” Carnahan of the Atlanta P.D. (David Gyasi) asks Lommers, “This [Syrian] kid, if he wasn’t Middle Eastern, would we be taking these precautions?”
“I’ve been doing my job as long as you’ve been doing yours,” says Lommers. “I’ve seen smallpox scares, SARS panic, West Nile. Most are news for a day, a week maybe, until the people find a Kardashian to distract them. But I’ve never seen anything like this virus before. How we handle it, how we handle ourselves, will determine whether or not we survive it… If we blow this, it’s not just a hospital in your little corner of Atlanta that’s in jeopardy.”
Several horrible deaths later, Dr. Victor Cannerts (George Young) of the Centers for Disease Control gives Lommers and Atlanta officials some very bad news.
“I’m afraid I must declare the virus as extremely pathogenic, highly contagious and fatal in 100 percent of its victims,” says Dr. Cannerts. “It appears the genome of this virus has been manipulated to give it higher pathogenicity and to make it capable of human-to-human transmission. We discovered a vial in patient zero’s belongings that had traces of a biological agent. We must assume he brought it into the country and into the hospital, where he infected Dr. Sanders.”
It should strike the viewer at this point in the episode that it is anything but politically correct, and may explain why this drama series, with its clear reference to illegal immigration and its possible ramifications, is not on a major network.
Some may even accuse The CW of colluding with Donald Trump in crafting the story line.
In any case, Lommers orders the establishment of a quarantine area around the hospital that requires building a fence. One that is electrified.
At a press conference, Lommers tells reporters, “It is highly controversial, but a cordon sanitaire has shown to be highly effective in Sierra Leone, keeping Ebola under control… the governor and the president are in full support. It’s only forty-eight hours, a minor inconvenience compared to what could happen if we do not take an aggressive stance containing this virus. Each access point to the exposure area will be cordoned off. Once we’re forty-eight-hours disease free, our lives can go back to normal. Until then, have faith in the authorities and please know that everyone is working to keep us all safe. With communication, trust and cooperation, this will be over before it begins.”
Never has anyone uttered more famous last words.
“Contagion” can be seen Tuesday nights. Check your local listings for exact times.