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Border Promiscuity, Illicit Intimacies, and Origin Stories: Or what Contagion’s Bookends Tell us About New Infectious Diseases and a Racialized Geography of Blame

The first scene of the 2011 film, Contagion, opens with a black screen and ambient airport noise. A woman coughs. As the screen fades from black to reveal a darkened airport bar, a caption in red, located at the bottom of the screen, reads “Day 2.” Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) shoves shelled peanuts into her mouth and wipes the salty residue from her hands. Her mobile phone rings. With a big grin, she holds the phone to her ear, wedding ring visible on her phone-answering hand.

“Hey,” she answers.

“Yeah, John Neal here. You just had sex with me in a hotel room and left without saying goodbye.”

“Yeah, and ended up being delayed, so… Sorry. I was panicking,” she responds.

“If I don’t get to see you again, I just wanted to say it was nice to see you again.”

“It was nice to see you too.”

“And listen: use the other email I gave you ‘cause that’s the only secure one, okay?”

Beth coughs again.

“You all right?”

“Yeah, I’m just jet lagged. Tired.”

John interrupts, “Look, you should go home and get some rest. Hong Kong is a long ways away.”

In the film’s first minute, we have learned about John’s secret email address, Beth’s trip to Hong Kong, and the couple’s adulterous tryst in a Chicago hotel. An announcement about Beth’s flight home pierces the light repartee between secret lovers, as the viewer is left wondering: if this is Day 2, what the hell happened on Day 1?

This is an epidemic thriller; it should be clear that Beth’s cough—arising after a trip to long-ways-away Hong Kong, no less—will eventually register, not as a sign of fatigue or jet lag, but as a harbinger of a global health emergency. In viewing Contagion, we enter a world hewing closely to the conventional outbreak narrative, where a new, deadly virus emerges in the scandalous co-mingling of Asian or African native species and ‘man’, circulates along well-traveled business routes, and is unleashed on the Western world through illicit intimacies occurring on multiple registers. Illicit intimacy, and its sister sickness, border promiscuity, suffuse and generate the visual field of the pandemic, animating dueling origin stories for the disease’s catastrophic spread, and, thus, the film’s dramatic tension.

Days two and one of the epidemic, the film’s beginning and end, respectively, offer a means for us to analyze these tensions as they relate to the diseases’ origins and their visualization. They also offer us lessons for how we discuss and represent our current epidemic of COVID-19 with respect to race, gender, place and kin. Specifically, I’d like to suggest that outside of China, health officials’ singular focus on the disease’s geographical origins, in Wuhan (or in a Wuhanese seafood market), has aided in the mismanagement of the health officials’ responses elsewhere. The film’s bookends also draw attention to regimes of migration and facts of place that are taken for granted, and thus, remain underexplored as COVID-19 crosses national borders and affects everyday life across the world.

Even though events of ‘Day 2’ kick off the film’s action, it is not the most important day; nor does it get at the essence of the disease’s emergence.  Yet a proverbial day two is elevated in the US CDC response to COVID-19. Well into the US outbreak, the CDC case definition highlighted symptoms and known travel to China (or contact with such a person), ignoring altogether the possibility that person-to-person spread had already occurred– irrespective of a relationship to China. CDC’s unwillingness to test patients with suspected COVID-19 infection who did not meet the criteria has limited the ability of officials, clinicians and patients to curb the disease’s spread.

As more people fall ill with the virus in Europe, I’ve heard on Twitter: “why hasn’t this spread in Africa? With its weak health systems, and neocolonial incursions from China, this could devastate Africa…” This same singular focus on origins, without regard for inequitable visa regimes that allow for the free movements of North Americans, Europeans and Australians through African ports of entry, is also what makes the inevitable spread within Africa thinkable, if not possible. For it’s not necessarily the oft-mentioned African-China extraction connections that will facilitate its spread, but the relatively easy access that Europeans often have to African countries. Today, many of the “African” cases of COVID-19 are visitors from Italy and France. UK, US and EU citizens often purchase automatic access at the border, while these same countries have extensive application processes for African citizens and frequently reject African visa applicants and asylees. Border promiscuity, the widespread idea that viruses move indiscriminately across borders, is therefore, a naïve expression of the outbreak narrative; viruses move in bodies, and the freedom of certain bodies, certain people, to move across borders needs to be acknowledged.

In Contagion, border promiscuity conspires with other forms of illicit intimacy, morphing into and revealing pathogenic relations that are racialized and gendered, sexualized and economized. We soon learn Beth’s marriage to Mitch (Matt Damon) is not her first. Beth is a working mother in a blended family. Epidemic detective work linking her tawdry relationship with John to a chain of infections in another US city throws her kin relations into confusion: a virus disrupts Mitch’s teen daughter’s social life; infects and kills Beth and her son, dissolves a stepfather-stepson relationship and a marriage. What “we” thought we knew about the relationships between borders and disease is confused. Some people’s unchecked mobilities and migrations – the white American businesswoman, for example, but also the white women epidemiologists! – pose a significant threat to global social order, even as they engage in epidemic heroics to preserve it.

In the visual field of Contagion’s pandemic, time and space are configured through the heightened visibility of touch and intimacy of sight. Again, I ask: what happened on day one? What was visibly touched, intimately seen? Not Beth and John, having sex — because Beth was in a Hong Kong casino, carousing with Chinese work colleagues from the mining company, AIMM Alderson. She was blowing their dice and sealing the world’s fate. Beth, before day one, exists by implication; she is a node connecting actors operating on a global scale, while the rest of the Chinese circulate within their country’s boundaries. Beth links transnational corporations headquartered in the West and industrial mining and agriculture located in the East. And these actors enable the scandalous co-mingling of animal species and their viral offspring.

Before day one – ground zero? — a bulldozer with the AIMM Alderson logo rolls through a tropical forest at dusk. The camera tilts up toward a darkening sky occluded by tall palm trees. When two of the palm trees are felled by the machine, fruit bats are driven out of the forest. One displaced bat, presumably from that original crew, lands on and eats from a banana tree in the dark. There is a crossfade to a later moment, in which the bat is hanging from a building’s rafters. As the camera tilts downward, we see that this building is a pig farm. A bat drops its food, which lands where the pigs eat. After another crossfade to daytime inside the pig farm, we see two men looking at the pigs. The rest is predictable, and yet we have not fully come to terms with this part of the COVID-19 story yet.

Like the Nipah virus upon which the film’s story is based, viral emergence rests on the illicit intimacy between pigs crowded in their factory farm and bats, driven from their place among the date palms. In the casino restaurant’s kitchen, the chef, dressed in white, is touching the inside of the slaughtered pig’s mouth, when he is interrupted by a colleague, who beckons him to an area outside of the kitchen. Before he leaves the kitchen, he wipes his hands on his apron, lightly smearing it with blood. In the dining area, he meets Beth Emhoff, shakes her hand, and leans in close as another man in a suit snaps their photo. Compliments to the chef. This is day one. And it is also the beginning of the end. And no one saw it coming because Beth’s mobility is presumed natural in the global order of things.


Adia Benton is an associate professor of anthropology and African Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota, 2015), and an in-progress book about the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak.


3 Responses to Border Promiscuity, Illicit Intimacies, and Origin Stories: Or what Contagion’s Bookends Tell us About New Infectious Diseases and a Racialized Geography of Blame

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