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PILLAI: Coronavirus' implications were predicted in these two films


Column: Unboxed

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.
Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.

Over the past two weekends, I watched two movies on two completely different topics that are somehow connected to the catastrophe we find ourselves in right now. 

One movie is about a historical event, while the other, billed as a science-fiction thriller, is an unnerving prophecy. One movie features a mix of real people and fictional characters based on actual individuals, while the other contains completely fabricated characters who resemble figures on the national stage today. Despite their distinctions, both films offer warnings for the present and predictions for the future that we should probably heed. 

Adam McKay’s 2015 movie "The Big Short," based on Michael Lewis’s book "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," follows three separate storylines in which various characters anticipate the housing crisis of 2007-08. I saw this movie inadvertently, since my sister was watching it and I just happened to be on the couch at that time. 

In the movie, hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale, realizes the existence of a housing bubble fueled by subprime loans, so he approaches different banks to propose a credit default swap that will allow him to bet against the housing market. 

How do the bankers react? They jump for joy, of course! Believing that the housing market is stable and steady, the bankers dismiss Dr. Burry and his predictions as eccentric, salivating at the thought of the premiums his fund will have to pay. The power of dramatic irony allows us, the viewers, to cluck our tongues at these poor, hapless souls (how could they be so naive?). 

Yet, we all secretly know that we are, for the most part, far more similar to those bankers than Dr. Burry because we did not see the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) coming. When Hollywood releases a 2-hour long movie about the buildup to the coronavirus crisis, future generations will look upon the characters on the screen, fictional versions of ourselves, with the same pity with which we gaze upon the oblivious individuals in "The Big Short." 

It took a recession to show how fragile our financial system actually is. Today, we are learning the same lessons about our healthcare and preparedness infrastructure. 

At the end of "The Big Short," employees file out of Wall Street buildings during massive layoffs, carrying boxes with all of their work materials. Unemployment during the Great Recession peaked at 10 percent with 15 million people unemployed in October 2009, but more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the United States entered a national emergency in March this year. 

The movie also addresses the fact that big banks preyed upon the symbol of the American Dream, home ownership, to earn profit. What the movie does not mention is that subprime lenders disproportionately targeted minorities. As of 2010, Black and Latinx people were 47 and 45 percent more likely to be facing foreclosure than white people, respectively. The coronavirus statistics today echo the trend of those numbers from the housing crisis, since the disease is disproportionately infecting and killing Black people. 

While "The Big Short" gives us a glimpse into the potential financial implications of the coronavirus, our medical trajectory mimics the plot of "Contagion" shot-for-shot. Dr. Erin Mears, played by Kate Winslet, is an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who tries to convince government officials to warn the public about the movie’s titular outbreak. But, these officials are afraid of causing mass hysteria so they decide not to respond. 

People begin dying and a chaotic quarantine ensues. A blogger named Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law, pretends to have the virus and spreads the false theory that forsythia is the cure. This plot detail may have seemed implausible in the past, but the abundance of conspiracy theories online about the origins of the coronavirus and possible remedies prove that the film is, once again, prophetic. 

As I watched Jory Emhoff, the daughter of Matt Damon’s character, dance at her own living room prom, I had determined the film should be reclassified as a documentary. Everything about it: the bureaucratic blunders, the lack of food, the scramble for a vaccine, was absolutely true and devastating. 

The workers on the front line were the heroes of the film, and we often say that life imitates art. Viewers of this film and society at large now understand that these people have always been the heroes, but that epiphany is not enough. 

We need to take steps to protect essential workers, strengthen our emergency response and healthcare mechanisms and take care of one another before the end credits start rolling. 

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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