The Theme of Pride in Outbreak


Produced in 1995 the movie Outbreak is a timely diversion as the Swine Flu epidemic sweeps the nation (not). It’s sort of a conspiracy meets disaster flick in which the greatest fears of movie’s epidemiologists are realized when a deadly virus mutates and goes airborne. There is a squirmy scene in which someone sneezes in a movie theatre and we watch the infection float through the air into the mouth of another person. Soon an entire town is infected. The CDC and the military descend upon a town to assess the situation and try to eradicate the virus.

This movie shows how an event like a possible pandemic can become a political football. Decisions about how to handle the outbreak, what to tell the public, how to handle the media, and what the political repercussions might be all reveal the hubris of leadership. Before the virus spreads the Centers for Disease Control weighs the cost of a special alert. It comes down to whether it’s worth the money and the embarrassment of being wrong.

The president’s cabinet convenes to decide how to handle this threat. Their decisions are based not only on the scientific and medical implications but also on how they will be perceived politically. Not being medical professionals the President’s cabinet must rely on the information provided by a group of experts chosen by a general with an agenda. Ebola and Motaba virus expert Col. Sam Daniels, upon finding out that the committee advised the president on the virus, begins ranting “Why wasn’t I invited?” Sometimes pride develops in those with knowledge and expertise and people get the idea that they are indispensible. If Daniels is guilty of pride, Gen. McClintock is guilty of hubris.

Hubris, considered the greatest sin in the Greek world, involved acts in which the perpetrator challenged the gods. Outrageous pride or self confidence is often indicated by acts that further the agenda of the hubristic person with blatant disregard for the lives of others. Sometimes those who have the authority to make decisions that affect the lives of others become too focused on keeping their power rather than on what is truly in the best interest of the public they serve. They are willing to take risks with lives and livelihoods to preserve their own reputations and advance their own agendas. 

SPOILER ALERT Daniels isn’t invited because McClintock has a secret that he is willing to kill to protect. It turns out the virus mutated from a bioweapon developed by McClintock and his reluctant partner Gen. Billy Ford who is now Daniels’ boss. While its conspiracy premise might seem a bit far fetched, the issues of public trust and executive hubris in Outbreak are disturbingly on the mark. For conspiracy theorists, it’s also pretty interesting that the real Swine Flu outbreak of 1976 happened at a military installation.

The Swine Flu appeared in 1976 at Fort Dix, New Jersey among new recruits and quickly killed one soldier and hospitalized four more. After testing, 500 more soldiers were found to have to disease. Alarmed at how quickly it spread within the base and considering that the flu was a new strain the CDC got involved.

In deciding to pursue a vaccine for a virus that had not yet spread, the CDC might be accused of overreacting and diverting public funds away from fighting more threatening diseases. In failing to act it might be accused of failing to act quickly enough if the flu did spread. The hesitancy of the fictional CDC officials in Outbreak reveals political realities that these officials face.

In 1976 several factors, including mutation cycles of various pandemic flu viruses, caused the CDC to take the virus very seriously. Pandemic flu differs from seasonal flu because they are newly formed viruses which occur worldwide that our human immune systems are unable to fight effectively. It’s estimated that ¼ of the population died when the Plague swept through Europe between 1347- 1351. In 1918 there was a flu pandemic that swept the world, killing 30 to 50 million worldwide. In fact during that year of World War I more people were hospitalized for the flu than for battle wounds.

What is not understood is why, after the flu failed to spread as expected government doctors were still so adamant about pursuing a vaccine. It was on their recommendation that President Ford initially requested and Congress passed a $135 million dollar bill to develop the vaccine. A cynical mind would factor in the fact that in 1976, two years after Watergate, public opinion of the government was at an all-time low. Saving the public from a pandemic was just the boost politicians needed.

Though the CDC had every reason to believe that the threat was over and research suggested that the virus was not nearly as contagious as first thought, the wheels were in motion. Congress pressured the drug companies to get the serum out quickly. The drug companies refused to release the vaccine unless the government would agree to release them from responsibility for adverse reactions. At every turn we find the opportunity to make decisions for an uninformed public and deflect blame if something goes wrong. Just as in Outbreak, the issue of expedience over medical prudence reveals the pride of those who are supposed to be making decisions in the best interest of the public.

The CDC usually issued health alerts through state health agencies rather than holding press conferences but a higher profile was more politically advantageous. Soon after he was defeated in his first re-election primary President Ford held a press conference in which he announced that the government had come to the rescue and would begin inoculating the public. There were pictures of the President getting his flu shot. A media savvy public read this as a politically motivated event.

The vaccine was given to 40 million people, however several hundred (the CDC officially claims 50) developed Guillian Barre syndrome. One died. This led to a lawsuit against the government, and the head of the CDC lost his job. Though this Swine Flu never spread beyond Fort Dix the CDC still maintains that they acted responsibly and erred on the side of caution. While admitting a mistake might be scientifically responsible it would not be politically responsible. The whole 1976 Swine Flu affair is referred to as a “fiasco” that further eroded public trust. It would be really embarrassing to make the same mistake again in 2009. Let’s hope it is really lessons learned rather than fear of embarrassment that accounts for the more measured approach the CDC is taking this time around. 

One Response to “The Theme of Pride in Outbreak

  • Scott Says:

    Seems like everyone is jumping on the CDC-bashing-bandwagon. I too was watching a virus outbreak movie this weekend. It was called quarantine. Like Outbreak it poses the question how far would the CDC go to contain a virus threat. What makes it different is thier real-life-like filming style. Something we have seen before in movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield”. Without giving away too much, this movie doesn’t paint the CDC in a good light either. I guess we can only hope there are more Col. Sam Daniels out there and not as many Gen. McClintocks.