Flu Season and Fiction: What Downton Abbey and Contagion Tell Us About Facing Reality

With flu season now officially underway across the country, according to The Centers for
Disease Control, it is appropriate to reflect on the notion that Hollywood's Academy Awards made
no mention recently of the movie Contagion, just as PBS ended season two of its
acclaimed series Downton Abbey with the penultimate episode about the
1918 Spanish Flu.

All three of these developments carry a potentially
dangerous public health message.

While the CDC offers reassurance that
this year's flu will be mild, the box office failure of Contagion --
despite an all-star cast and an impressive list of expert consultants --
suggests that moviegoers were unwilling to confront a plausibly worst-case
scenario of a deadly pandemic. By contrast, Downton Abbey, which
attracted more than 9 million viewers each week , dramatized the
deadliest epidemic in the history of the world by fitting it neatly within
the plot lines without compromising the elegance that is so attractive to
devoted fans.

As a public health researcher who studies epidemic preparedness and a fan
of Downton Abbey, I was especially nervous when the teaser announced that
the the program would feature a visit of the Spanish Flu to the Crawley

I did not look forward to viewing how the disease would change
life at Downton and alter the appearance of the attractive people living
there. What would the family members and servants do to avoid contracting
the highly contagious virus from an ill household member? Would the
servants' love of their lords and ladies compel them to minister at their
bedside thus overcoming the natural fear of illness and possibly death?
Would the beautiful actors cover their beautifully made up faces with
crude masks to minimize the spread of the droplets from coughing? Would
they forego their elegant clothes? Could the house remain spotless and
the silver polished if the servants took sick?

I was also curious about the portrayal of medical care. The one doctor remaining in
the area after Downton's conversion from a wounded soldier's infirmary did
not impress me with his medical competence. Having seriously misdiagnosed
the paralysis of Downton heir Matthew Crawley and the self-destructive
depression of a wounded soldier, he appeared to be unqualifiedly
self-assured, inflexible and snobbish. If he remained healthy as the
epidemic spread, he would undoubtedly be overwhelmed by needy patients.
Certainly, he would respond immediately to the aristocratic members of the
Crawley family, but would he also minister as carefully to their servants
and village folk?

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. About the only realistic facts
associated with this portrayal were that the disease was an unpredictable
respiratory illness, and that, unlike most influenza, the largest number
of deaths inexplicably occurred among the healthy young adult age group.
Hence Lavinia Catherine Swire, fiancée of the designated male heir, died
while the Countess and butler recovered.

While there were reports of other maids being sick, there was no mention of their suffering. Life at
Downton was only nominally disrupted; the wedding was reluctantly
postponed perhaps in part because there might be a shortage of healthy
servants to attend to their guests. Alas, the wedding became a moot issue
when the prospective bride suddenly succumbed to the disease. She died
looking gorgeous even if pale and gasping for breath as she spoke to her
fiancé. He sat by her side holding her hand while others stood
nearby -- all apparently oblivious to the possibility of infection.

Ironically, the Countess, who in one scene appeared to be near death, did
not look quite so lovely. She was seen bleeding from the nose and
appearing to vomit. Contrary to expectations, however, she pulled
through and none of her attendants got sick. Similarly, the doctor made a
point of visiting the servants who were ill.

Thus, the show, whose storylines revolved around social class distinctions, made no reference to
the particular difficulties experienced by the poor and working classes in
accessing medical services, receiving help during their suffering, and
avoiding destitution when they had no income because illness kept them
from working.

There was still drama aplenty in the script, but it came primarily from
the viewers' fear for the characters rather than the fear of the
characters for the disease. This too was unreal. In his monumental book
on The Great Influenza, John Barry writes: "There was terror afoot in
1918, real terror. The randomness of death brought that terror home. So
did its speed."

He further explains,

The public could trust nothing and so
they knew nothing. So a terror seeped into the society that prevented one
woman from caring for her sister, that prevented volunteers from bringing
food to families too ill to feed themselves and who starved to death
because of it, that prevented trained nurses from responding to the most
urgent calls for their services. The fear, not the disease, threatened to
break society apart.

The Downton Abbey episode stands in sharp contrast to the docudrama
presented in the 2011 movie Contagion. The fictional, but credible and
frightening, film version of a future pandemic did not attract a large

This is likely due in large part to the general public's
unwillingness to confront the reality of what a serious disease threat
could look like. The movie premiered soon after the 2009 worldwide H1N1
pandemic proved far less deadly than experts had feared. Claiming fewer
lives and causing minimal disruption, many Americans concluded that the
government had overhyped the danger. A majority of adults refused to
believe the government's claim that the vaccine developed during the
second wave of the virus was safe and effective in preventing the spread
of the disease. Ignoring the movie version for many likely meant not
having to worry about the continuing danger.

Certainly, art need not imitate life even when a story's plot depends upon
a major historical event. The British television drama sought to
entertain effectively allowing us to ignore the realities of the disease
that ravaged the world in the early 20th century. PBS frequently presents
excellent informative and educational programming about current issues,
although few of these attract a viewership as large as Downton Abbey. It
is ironic, if not surprising, that Hollywood, whose primarily goal is to
entertain, could not attract a large audience to a realistic movie that
educated viewers about a potentially serious threat to modern society.

From the perspective of the viruses, not much has changed from the time of
Downton Abbey to the near future of Contagion. Medical care and medicine
have indeed advanced, but the increase in world travel and human contact
will tax our capacity to treat those suffering from an unknown virus for
which we have no vaccine and possibly no wholly effective treatment.

We have no way of assuring that the present income gap will not make it more
difficult for the poor, the unemployed, and those in medically underserved
communities to access medical care and support services. That we have
thus far been lucky does not mean that every contagious disease will be
mild or containable. In a crisis we cannot expect that all the planning
will work as expected.

Americans understandably preferred the pure fiction of Downton Abbey as
they were reluctant to find reality of Contagion entertaining. We must
hope, however, that if life imitates art and confronts us with a novel
deadly pandemic, we will do more than sit back and watch for a happy

Leslie Gerwin is Associate Director, Program in Law and Public Affairs,
Princeton University; she teaches Public Health Law and Policy as an
Adjunct Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.