Preparedness—the process of readying for emerging threats—is central to contemporary public health, which strives to anticipate potential problems instead of reacting to medical disasters. However, this concept resonates little outside of elite policymaker circles. Instead, many Americans assume policymaking is an inherently reactive process that rewards politicians for “fixing” existing problems. For example, while the prospect of a pandemic influenza outbreak represents one of American’s most pressing concerns, surveys report pervasive public ignorance about many aspects of preparedness and public health, including disease transmission, prevention practices, and the relationship between zoological and human diseases. For many Americans, it seems, exposure to such issues comes not through first-hand experience or even governmental education efforts, but through the fictional world of “biothrillers.” Biothrillers are a distinct genre of movies, novels, and television shows that depict humankind’s efforts to survive novel and extraordinarily dangerous diseases. Because an informed citizenry is vital to a healthy functioning democracy, this paper considers the capacity of biothrillers to democratize public health by educating citizens about preparedness as well as the risks associated with the emerging diseases. To what extent do biothrillers empower citizens to draw informed conclusions and make informed decisions about contemporary public health practices and health risks? Can biothrillers compensate for scant government education efforts, thereby helping to close the knowledge gap between medical and political elites and the public writ large? This paper examines three prominent biothrillers, Wolfgang Peterson’s 1995 film Outbreak, Richard Pierce’s 2006 film Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, and Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion. It finds that although biothrillers vary in the extent to which they present accurate depictions of the risks associated with emerging diseases as well as the general practice of public health, most of these films fail to empower citizens to become active participants in the procurement of public health. This shortcoming is largely a testament to the films’ portrayal of citizens as helpless and passive victims. The one exception to this rule is Fatal Contact, which depicts the efforts of neighborhood groups to form ad-hoc influenza monitoring and response programs.
DeLeo, Robert A.
"DEMOCRATIZING PUBLIC HEALTH: CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT THROUGH THE BIOTHRILLER GENRE,"
Catalyst: A Social Justice Forum: Vol. 4
, Article 4.
Available at: https://trace.tennessee.edu/catalyst/vol4/iss1/4