Patient Zero is a flight attendant, stricken with what she thinks is chickenpox. She goes to ground in a Montreal hotel room. A few weeks later, she’s back on the job — unaware of her role in an impending public health catastrophe.
Pandemics have killed more people throughout history than all wars combined. They are unpredictable — and inevitable. Are we ready for the next big one?
Outbreak: Anatomy of a Plague juxtaposes a 21st century scenario against the little-known story of the 1885 smallpox epidemic that devastated Montreal. Revisiting North America’s last major encounter with the dreaded “Red Death,” it vividly evokes a modern city under siege.
By the late 19th century Montreal was Canada’s leading metropolis, and smallpox was preventable. So when an inbound train conductor displayed symptoms of the disease, authorities should have been able to contain the infection. But a string of fatal errors and mishaps would muddy the waters — and a tainted batch of vaccine would sow panic and mistrust in a city already divided by language, religion and class.
Epidemics feed on chaos — and by the time it had run its terrible course, the 1885 plague had claimed over 2500 lives, mostly children from the city’s impoverished French-speaking slums.
This cautionary history injects Outbreak with dramatic urgency, as Dr Teresa Tam — who oversees Canada’s Federal Emergency Response Team — joins epidemiologist Michael Libman and other experts to speculate on the possible trajectory of a contemporary pandemic.
Echoing the events of 1885, authorities struggle to contain the infection in the face of social unrest, ethnic scapegoating and economic ruin. Strikingly conceived re-enactments present disquieting scenes of over-crowded emergency wards, shuttered shopfronts and police coercion.
Addressing renewed fears of bio-warfare and recent experience with SARS and AIDS, Outbreak deftly blends fiction with popular history to tailor a timely and engaging reflection on what can happen when pandemics strike. Based on Plague: How Smallpox Devastated Montreal, by Michael Bliss.