Contemplating the kingdom of the sick | Inquirer Opinion

Contemplating the kingdom of the sick

/ 05:01 AM April 18, 2020

In her magisterial book “Illness as Metaphor,” the late Susan Sontag wrote that “Illness is the nightside of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged… to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Anyone who wants to witness the subversion of the kingdom of the well should watch on YouTube the 2011 film “Contagion,” about how a virus wreaked havoc not too long ago in countless parts of the world.


Having experienced the start of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Hong Kong back in 2003 before fleeing to the United States, I watched “Contagion” a few years after the event and was struck by its authenticity. It may be too painful to watch again, but some folks I know who recently watched it for the first time were transfixed. It’s an engrossing narrative that reflects much of what’s now happening on the planet, one that may provide clues on how to tackle the present pandemic.

For his work, American director Steven Soderbergh had enlisted the help of medical experts and representatives of the World Health Organization. The movie was well received by scientists who lauded its accuracy. After all the research involved for the film, Soderbergh concluded, “We’re due for a big one.” Sadly, that big one is upon us now.


Understandably, quite a number of people prefer to escape the present grim reality around us, looking on those of us fixated on reports of old and new pandemics as masochists. Sequestered in their homes, the escapists prefer not to watch films like “Contagion,” concentrating instead on ways to try and forget the frightening plague by focusing on telenovelas for hours on end (I have a relative who spends her days mesmerized by serial Korean dramas). Others watch TV comedies to share laughs with their children—something that’s soothing therapy for worried souls. Then there are those who risk getting eye problems by playing countless computer games.

‘‘Contagion” resonated with me, not just because it was well crafted but because it was filmed, among several places, in Hong Kong where I lived for some years. Headed by a superb international cast, the plot line unfolds, enabling one to follow the way a SARS-like virus was transmitted and see how its victims spiraled down to the verge of extinction.

In one brilliant scene, a bulldozer knocks down a banana tree in a rainforest in China, disturbing some bats. One bat finds shelter in a pig farm where it drops a banana. The fruit is eaten by a pig which is soon slaughtered, its carcass taken to a restaurant in a Macau casino. One of the film’s main characters, an American businesswoman visiting Hong Kong, goes to Macau where she later happens to shake hands with the chef who cooked the pig. With the virus transmitted to her, she returns to the United States where she suffers seizures and dies.

Watching the film is both painful and enlightening, making one wish that any coronavirus skeptics who’re still around could see it to open their eyes. Needless to say, there are dire consequences if some humans remain ignorant or uncaring about plagues like today’s. Some commentators have discussed the chilling possibility of chaos and disorder resulting from today’s pandemic among the masses around the world. A few weeks ago, about two dozen people demonstrated in Quezon City demanding food aid. They were quickly quelled by the police, but the way authorities around the country delay and fumble food and financial aid to those in dire need does not inspire hope.

This is an unlucky country that often suffers natural calamities and corrupt governance, which is why there’s a massive need for individuals of integrity to step up and tackle whelming disasters to prevent ours from becoming a failed state. It’s not just “Contagion” that one can watch today to gain an understanding of plagues around the globe. Netflix has a 6-part series called “Pandemic” that’s informative and superbly presented. It shows actual scientists and physicians from around the world dealing with such diseases as bird flu, measles, swine fever, and coronavirus in places like India, Guatemala, Congo, and the United States. A visually stunning depiction of how viruses develop, and of the hard work done by scientific researchers and medics, it’s a frightening and inspiring thing to watch. One which gives hope that there are those helping humans stay in the kingdom of the well.

Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.

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TAGS: “Illness as Metaphor, , SARS, Susan Sontag
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