This Guide has been revised in March of 2020 to make the lesson relevant to the 2020 Covid-19 corona virus pandemic.

SUBJECTS — Health (infectious disease; influenza; pandemics); Medicine; Science-Technology;



AGE; 13+

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing content and some language – During the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, TWM recommends a minimum age of 16 years because the pandemic shown in the film is approximately 10 times more lethal than the Covid-19 pandemic; the scenes of sick and dying people in the film will be especially disturbing in a time of pandemic; Drama; 2011, 106 minutes; Color.


One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s list of the ten best movies to supplement classes in Health, High School Level.

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See TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for “Contagion”. This is a modified version of TWM’s film study worksheet for a documentary.


This movie describes a fictional influenza pandemic: the origin of the virus, the human toll, the response of the public health agencies, and the various reactions of people to a public health emergency. The film is a reasonable prediction of what would occur in the event of a moderately lethal influenza pandemic. (Note that the virus shown in the film is about 10 times more lethal more lethal than the Covid-19 corona virus that is causing a pandemic in 2020., i.e., more than 20% of the people who get the virus in the movie die from it while at this writing only about 2 – 3% of the people who get Covid-19 die from it.)


Selected Awards:



Featured Actors:

Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff; Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff; Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever; John Hawkes as Roger; Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede



Steven Soderbergh.


Students will understand the risks to modern society a from moderately lethal viral pandemic. Students will be able to discuss some of the ethical issues involved in responding to a pandemic.  They will learn to use the Internet to obtain information on illnesses from various websites, including from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).


Minor. Scenes of people dying from the flu may disturb some students.


Tell your children that the movie is a reasonable approximation of what might occur in the case of an out-of-control influenza pandemic that is approximately 10 times more lethal than the 2020 Covid-19 corona virus pandemic.


Tell students that the movie is a reasonable approximation of what might occur in the case of an out-of-control influenza pandemic that is approximately 10 times more lethal than the 2020 Covid-19 corona virus pandemic.  The movie does not predict what will happen with Covid-19, unless it mutates to become a much more lethal infection.


For authoritative information on the Covid-19 corona virus go to the CDC Website,  For local information go to websites maintained by your state or local governments.

Columbia University has drafted the filmmakers to do a series of public service announcements on the how to Control the Contagion.



Differences and Similarities Between the 2020 Covid-19 Corona Virus

Pandemic and the Fictional MEV-1 Virus Shown in the Film


1. Lethality  — The virus shown in the movie was about 10 times more lethal that the Covid-19 Corona virus.  At the time of this writing, the exact lethality of the Covid-19 corona virus is not known but it is estimated to be around 2%.  The MEV-1 virus in the movie has an estimated lethality of more than 20%.


2.  Covid-19 attacks the lungs.  The virus in the movie caused swelling of the brain.


3. Covid-19 has an estimated incubation period of around 2 – 14 days. (This is the CDC estimate based on similar viruses.)  The virus in the movie multiplied much faster and caused death quickly.  This is unrealistic.  The mechanism of death from viruses is often from the defense mechanisms of the bodies of the victims. For example, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed because the rapidly replicating virus kicked the immune system into overdrive, turning the body against itself.  Victims drowned from within as their lungs filled with fluid and blood.   It is not clear what causes the brain swelling in the movie.   As for Covid-19, we do not yet know how the Covid-19 virus kills its victims except to say that it attacks the lungs.


4. Both viruses are spread by respiratory droplets and fomites:  objects like clothing, bags, or door handles that the virus can live on.  People touch the fomites and then put their hands to their face.  The virus enters through the nose, mouth, or eyes.


Discussion Questions/Essay Prompts:

Note to Teachers:  Have students research the Internet for the latest information to answer the following questions.  Check their sources to make sure that they are trustworthy, such as the CDC or other governmental or academic sources.


1. What are the most recent therapies being suggested by physicians?


2. What is the mechanism behind the development of severe symptoms in the Covid-19 epidemic?


3. What is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?


4. What is the role of the Centers for Disease Control in the response of the U.S. to an epidemic?


5. What is the BEI Resources Repository and how does it assist in a response to an epidemic?


6. What is the current progress on developing a vaccine for the Covid-19 corona virus?


7. What are our current defenses to the Covid-19 pandemic?


8. What is the importance of developing a test for a virus in a pandemic?


9. What types of people are at an elevated risk of death from the Covid-19 pandemic?


10. What is the role of people who are only at risk of mild illness from Covid-19 in responding to the pandemic?


11. What is the origin of the word “quarantine”?

Suggested Response:  

During the plague pandemic called “the Black Death” 1347 to 1351 the port city of Ragusa in Italy tried to prevent the plague from reaching the city by requiring sailors to remain on their ships for 40 days to demonstrate tha they were not ill.   How Five of History’s Worst Pandemics Finally Ended – History Channel.


12. Write a paper describing the severity and effects of the three past pandemics:  the 1918/1919 Influenza Pandemic, the “the Black Death” of 1347 to 1351; and the Small Pox outbreak among Native Americans after the Europeans crossed the Atlantic.

[This is the end of the Covid-19 Section of the Guide.]


The Seasonal Flu

Despite vaccines and advances in modern medicine, every year three hundred million to one billion people worldwide get sick from the seasonal flu; that’s between 5 and 15% of the human population. Seasonal flu is a mild to severe disease. Some years are worse than others, but the seasonal flu causes between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths each year. Most susceptible are the elderly, the chronically ill, and the very young. Actually, spread over the world, the deaths from flu are less than one-tenth of one percent of the population (or less than 1 in 1000). The U.S. is not immune from influenza. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year 41,400 Americans die from the seasonal flu.

Vaccines protect people from getting sick, but they don’t kill the viruses that continue to live in various animal population reservoirs. Animals harboring influenza virus such as wild birds, pigs and chickens can have few symptoms or they are not sick at all. The viruses mutate frequently and some of these mutations allow them to cross from one species to another. Other mutations may make an existing human virus more communicable or more deadly.

Each year scientists are on the lookout for new influenza viruses. They create vaccines for these new viruses and put the vaccinates into the flu shots that many people get each fall. Hopefully, the doctors find all the new viruses, but sometimes they don’t. It is also possible that a new virus that is very infectious and very lethal, like the virus portrayed in the movie Contagion, will spread before the doctors even know it exists.

An example of how close disaster can come is the H5N1 Avian flu virus that first appeared in 2002. Scientists rate the danger of a strain of a virus using two measures: how infectious it is (how easily it passes from one person to another) and how lethal it is (what percentage of people die once they become ill). World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that as of February 2012, 584 people had contracted H5N1 and that 345 of those people died of the disease. That’s a mortality rate of 59%. However, and very fortunately, it is very hard for this virus to spread from one person to another – it cannot spread through the air or casual contact between people. The virus is found in some migratory bird populations. Recently, some scientists have suggested that this rate is too high based on the fact that only serious cases will be reported to international public health authorities, see Dread Reckoning: H5N1 Bird Flu May Be Less Deadly to Humans Than Previously Thought–or Not by Helen Branswell Scientific American, February 14, 2012. But even if mortality estimate for H5N1 is off by 75%, the resulting death rate of 14% would be about 5 times higher than the 1918/1919 pandemic which had a death rate of greater than 2.5%

Because the H5N1 virus has not developed the ability to spread easily from person to person and it has been around since 1997, scientists have had time to develop a vaccine against it that is safe and effective. If the virus mutates in a way that makes the vaccine ineffective, it will take several months to develop a new vaccine and in that time millions of people could die. However, just as there is no way to accurately predict how deadly and communicable the next mutation of the influenza virus might be, there is no way to predict the effectiveness of new ways of combatting its spread or new ways of treating the disease.

As shown in the film, modern life with international air travel has made influenza outbreaks more difficult to control. However, modern medicine, with vaccines and antibiotics, has worked in the other direction and has also made influenza easier to survive.


The Flu Pandemics of the Last 100 Years

A pandemic is a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high portion of the human population. In the last 100 years, there have been four influenza pandemics. They are compared to the seasonal flu in the following table.

* Some estimates are that as many as 100 million people died of the Spanish Flu.

** These are from verified lab results and probably are substantially under-reported.

The actual numbers are thought to be much higher.


While the Spanish Flu was the worst flu pandemic in modern history, in some ways the world was lucky. While it was 20 times more lethal than ordinary seasonal flu, the Spanish Flu was not as infectious as other illness such as the common cold, smallpox or measles. Still, more people died from the Spanish Flu pandemic than from the hostilities in World War I. It is estimated that half of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe were killed by the influenza virus, and a total of 675,000 people died from the pandemic in the U.S. (550,000 of these were excess deaths, that is deaths that would not have happened but for the flu.) The life expectancy in the U.S. was cut by 11.8 years due to the Spanish Flu.

Influenza epidemics can exhibit different infection patterns from the seasonal flu which kills the elderly, the chronically ill, and very young children. The Spanish Flu was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40. It struck down the strong and vigorous. people sometimes died rapid deaths, sometimes within hours of the onset of symptoms. Entire families were wiped out; in other families, just one or two people survived. Children lost their parents, parents lost their children, husbands their wives, etc. The emotional toll on the survivors was devastating. The deaths were painful. One physician described his patients as dying while “struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth.” Diary of Isaac Starr, a third-year medical student recruited to treat victims

Outbreaks swept the globe. In India, the mortality rate was 50 deaths per 1,000 people. Doctors of the time were powerless against the disease. The influenza virus was not even identified until 1933.

Public health officials of the affected areas were unable to stop the spread of the disease. They tried everything they could think of from distributing gauze masks to prohibiting stores from holding sales, limiting funerals to 15 minutes, banning meetings, restricting entry into the town, to name a few. Nothing worked. There was also a lack of health care workers due to illness or death. There was also a shortage of coffins and bodies piled up in morgues and funeral homes.

Scientists now think that most of the deaths from the 1918/1919 flu pandemic were the result of secondary bacterial pneumonia. Bacteria from the nose and throat were able to infect the lungs because the virus damaged the bronchial tubes and the lining of the lungs. With the development of antibiotics that can treat pneumonia, later pandemics have caused many fewer fatalities

Lasting a little over a year and killing between 20 million and 50 million people, the Spanish Flu was one of the worst pandemics in history. It compares to the Plague of Justinian, 541 – 590 A.D., in which 25 – 100 million lost their lives over 50 years, the Black Death of 1348-1351 in which 62 million lives were lost in about three years, and the current AIDS epidemic in which 34 million have died over 20 years. All of these numbers are approximate.

The 1918/1919 outbreak was dubbed the “Spanish Flu” because reporters in Spain, a country which was not a combatant in WWI, were not focused on reporting the war and were the first to realize that a new and dreadful disease was killing people. The strain of influenza responsible for the pandemic didn’t originate in Spain nor was it any worse there than in other places.

Scientists have recently been able to reconstruct the Spanish Flu virus from samples preserved in wax and tissues from people who were frozen in the Alaskan permafrost and recently unearthed. It appears to have bird genes which means that it jumped from birds to humans.

There are, on the average, three influenza pandemics every century. Dr. Robert Webster, a renowned virologist has stated that “All the genes of all influenza viruses in the world are being maintained in aquatic birds, and periodically they transmit to other species. . . . The 1918 viruses are still being maintained in the bird reservoir. So even though these viruses are very ancient, they still have the capacity to evolve, to acquire new genes, new hosts. The potential is still there for the catastrophe of 1918 to happen again.” The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, and the Emerging Swine Flu Pandemic from; accessed February 12, 2012.





When the people, acting through their government, enact laws or take action to protect the peace, security, safety, morals, health, and well-being of the community, they are said to be acting pursuant to the “police power.” This power is broad and flexible. It has no clear limits, permitting the state to act as necessary to protect the public welfare. Other examples of police power include zoning ordinances, building codes, the regulation of sanitation in dwellings and businesses, traffic laws, as well as safety regulations in the workplace. The power of the government to quarantine persons with contagious disease derives from the police power of the state.

In the United States, the police power is limited by those rights reserved to individuals by the Bill of Rights (as to the Federal Government), the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (which requires the states to recognize most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights), and various state constitutional provisions which on occasion grant more rights than the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment specifically prohibit the Federal Government and the states from taking life, liberty or property from individuals without due process of law. This means that the government cannot punish, imprison or kill anyone unless that person has been convicted of a crime. The police power often comes into conflict with these individual rights. The courts in the United States are constantly required to decide disputes about which will prevail in specific situations: the power of the state to provide for the general welfare or the rights of individuals reserved to them by various constitutional provisions. (Another film which raises the conflict between the power of the people as a whole and the rights of individuals is Inherit the Wind. In that case, the conflict was between the power of the people to regulate what was taught in the public schools and freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment.)

Quarantine deprives people of their liberty not because they have committed any crime, but due to their exposure to a dangerous communicable disease. The power of the state to impose quarantines has been recognized for many hundreds of years.

There have been situations in the past when constitutional rights have been suspended or ignored as a matter of policy by the government. Usually, these occur in the time of war. During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus. (The right of habeas corpus is exercised when a person who has been imprisoned by the government petitions a court to review the correctness of the government’s action.) Another example was the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.




Step 1 (Before Watching the Film):

Make students aware of past Pandemics: This can be accomplished in a number of ways. The teacher can provide direct instruction on pandemics by way of an introduction to the film; see Pandemics below. Students, or groups of students when school is in session, can be assigned to research and give class presentations on topics such as: (a) each of the influenza pandemics of the last 100 years,(b) the H5N1 Avian Flu, (c)  the Spanish Flu influenza pandemic of 1918/1919 and write a short essay. The length of the paper, its structure, and the scaffolding necessary will depend upon the level of the class. Use the rubric usually used in written work or get one from an ELA teacher.

At a minimum before students watch the movie, they should be informed that that students are informed that: (1) The mortality rate from the H5N1 Avian influenza virus is very high, from 30% to 80% of the people infected have died from the disease. Fortunately, it has spread only to several hundred people. (2)  the Pandemic of 1918/1919 was more contagious but much less lethal (something over 2.5%); it infected an estimated 500 million people, killing 20 to 50 million people.


Step 2:

Get Students Thinking: Ask students, as they watch the movie, to think about how they would react in the various situations shown in the film?





Step 3:

Play the Movie: Teachers who want to use a movie worksheet can download TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary. The only modification necessary will be to change the title and to delete the following language from question #4, “Nonfiction can enrich viewers in several important ways.” Otherwise, the worksheet is well-suited for this film without further modification.


Step 4:

Class Discussion: Immediately after the movie, start a discussion about whether the right thing to do in a pandemic situation is to obey the instructions of the authorities or to do whatever you can for your family or loved ones, even if it frustrates the efforts of the authorities. You can raise this issue with the following question, “In this film, the people from the Chinese village took the law into their own hands in their attempts to survive. One of the characters, Dr. Cheever, gave a female relative advance notice to leave a city about to be quarantined. Were these efforts to survive wrong? What would you have done?


Step 5:

Influenza Internet Research: Have students search the Internet to obtain brief authoritative information on the following subjects that are covered by the comprehension test set out below: influenza symptoms, how it spreads, treatment for influenza, why flu shots change every year, the most common complication of influenza, seasonal flu, sources of new strains of the influenza virus, the two criteria for assessing the dangerousness of a strain of the virus, and influenza pandemics of the last 100 years. Students should be required to use the websites of the CDC and HHS as well other sources. Students should be required to take notes on what they found, citing their sources. These notes should be turned in to make sure that the work has been performed.


Step 6:

Students can perform in-depth research on the human toll of the 1918/1919 Spanish Flu pandemic and then choose from a number of projects: (1) create a work of art such as a song, a story, a poem, a drawing, a dance or a collage of photographs, describing the effects of the pandemic or (2) write a research report on the experience of their hometown during the pandemic.




Test or Concluding Assignment:

The culmination of the Lesson can be a Comprehension Test. TWM recommends that the day before the test, teachers go over questions 1 – 8 (or the topics of these questions) with the class so that students will know what to focus on when they study. Another possibility for a concluding assignment is to require students to write an essay on the results of their research from Step 5 divided into sections on symptoms, prevention and treatment, citing sources. Students should be required to obtain information from the CDC and HHS websites, as well as others. An example of a good response (except that citations have not been included) is set out in the Helpful Background section below.


1. Influenza is a disease of the respiratory system lasting one or two weeks. Name five of the seven most common types of symptoms of the disease. One type of symptoms is most common in children; identify it in your answer.

Suggested Response:

Here are the seven types of symptoms: 1) A fever or feeling feverish (although not everyone with the flu has a fever); 2) A cough and/or sore throat; 3) A runny or stuffy nose; 4) Headaches and/or body aches; 5) Chills; 6) Fatigue; 7) Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children)


2. Describe the two major ways in which influenza is spread.

Suggested Response:

1) inhaling droplets in the air from someone who has sneezed or coughed and 2) touching an object or a surface which has the virus on it and then touching the mouth, eyes, or nose.


3. What are the usual treatments for influenza?

Suggested Response:

Bed rest, hydration, and alleviation of symptoms with over-the-counter medication.


4. Flu shots are changed each year to include protection from newly mutated versions of the influenza virus. How does vaccination rate when compared with other methods to avoid getting the seasonal flu?

Suggested Response:

Vaccination is the best way to avoid getting influenza.


5. The most common complication of influenza is pneumonia. What are the types of symptoms of an influenza attack that indicate that an immediate visit to a doctor or to the Emergency Room is necessary? There are ten of these types of symptoms. Name eight of them.

Suggested Response:

The ten types of symptoms are: 1) Fever over 102 degrees or fever lasts longer than three days; 2) Difficulty breathing, wheezing when breathing, or shortness of breath; 3) purple or blue discoloration of the lips; 4) Pain or pressure in the chest, abdomen or neck; severe headache; 5) Sudden dizziness; 6) Confusion; 7) Severe or persistent vomiting; 8) Seizures; 9) Flu symptoms that worsen each day; and 10) Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough.


6. What is the seasonal flu, and for an average year how many people catch it, and how many does it kill, in the world and in the U.S.?

Suggested Response:

Seasonal flu is a mild to severe disease caused by a mutation of the flu virus. It causes sickness in 300,000 to one billion people worldwide and kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people each year, about 41,400 people die in the U.S. each year from seasonal flu.


7. What are the sources of the new strains of the influenza virus that appear each year?

Suggested Response:

There are two. 1) Viruses that continue to live in various animal population reservoirs is one. Animals harboring influenza virus such as wild birds, pigs, and chickens can have few symptoms or they might not be sick at all. Influenza viruses mutate frequently and some of these mutations allow them to cross from one species to another. 2) Other mutations may make an existing human influenza virus more communicable or more deadly.


8. There are two major criteria used to evaluate the danger posed to mankind by an influenza virus. What are they?

Suggested Response:

The first is how infectious the virus is, i.e., how easily it passes from one person to another. The second is lethality, i.e., how many people who get sick will die.


9. What is a pandemic, and how often have influenza pandemics appeared during the last century?

Suggested Response:

A pandemic is a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high portion of the human population. Some pandemics have a high degree of lethality but most do not. In the last 100 years, there have been at least three influenza pandemics.


10. The Spanish Flu of 1918/1919 was the worst pandemic of the last 100 years infecting some 500 million people, at that time more than one-third of the world population. How many peopled died worldwide from the Spanish flu, and what was the death rate among those infected?

Suggested Response:

20 to 50 million people died from the Spanish flu. The death rate was estimated to be greater than 2.5%.


11. What is the bird flu, also called Avian flu? What is its mortality rate, and why hasn’t it become a pandemic? In your answer cover both lethality and infectiousness.

Suggested Response:

H5N1, a virus that exists in migratory birds, has mortality rates in humans varying from 30 to 80% of those who contract the disease. Some scientists believe that this number is too high because many cases in which people get better on their own are not reported. However, H5N1 virus has not developed the ability to spread easily from person to person.


12. There is now a vaccine for H5N1, why are doctors still worried that it could become the next pandemic?

Suggested Response:

If the virus mutates in a way that makes the existing vaccine ineffective, and if the virus also mutates to become more infectious, it will take several months to develop a new vaccine that would be effective against it. In that time millions of people could die.


Click here for a copy of the Comprehension Test in word processing format.

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Discussion Question for a Health Class

1. In this film, the people from the Chinese village took the law into their own hands in their attempts to survive. One of the characters gave a female relative advance notice to leave a town infected with the virus. Were these efforts to survive wrong? What would you have done?

Suggested Response:

The purpose of this question is to set up a discussion about whether the right thing to do is to control your panic and obey the instructions of the authorities or whether it is ok to do whatever you can for your family or loved ones, even if it frustrates the efforts of the authorities.


Discussion Questions for an ELA Class

For ELA classes, see Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



See Discussion question for a Health Class, above.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

See Discussion question for a Health Class, above.


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine.

This is Learning Guide was written by James Frieden. This Guide was last revised on March 23, 2020.

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