TV: Belgium’s Cordon a modern adaption of Albert Camus’s The Plague echoes Ebola crisis

Cordon cast

“Cordon sanitaire” is a sanitary cordon used to confine the infected with a highly contagious and deadly disease to a specific area, quarantining them away from the general population until everyone inside either dies or survives, allowing the disease to die out. This technique has been around for centuries. Photos are available recording how the cordon was implemented in Honolulu’s Chinatown in an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1889. In August 2014 cordons were used in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – the African countries most affected by Ebola.

Both Camus’s novel The Plague and Belgium’s 10-episode series Cordon reflected the dystopian reality of such a measure. Despite a few unbelievable absurdities, the latter represents a startlingly horrific picture of what would happen in a first world country should a plague infect our shores. Survival of the fittest doesn’t just apply to immune systems. Gangs with weapons can do extraordinarily well in such a situation. Criminals with brains and without a conscience controlled both the food supply and the escape route for which ordinary folk had to pay exorbitant amounts. Forget cemeteries, funeral pyres are the only way to dispose of the never ending pile of bodies. No crematorium could keep up. Suspicion and fear are the order of the day. Trust is a rare commodity. The brave and the cowardly are easily distinguished.

Lives are turned upside down both in and out of the cordon. Outside we had the police Commander Lex Faes, the cold and calculating national security representative Ms. Lommers and the greasy journalist Gryspeerts all jostling for control. Not surprisingly the media stoked fear of the plague, disseminated information both true and false which provoked retaliation by the government in the form of a communication blackout in the cordon. Intimidation of the journalist rightly suspected of creating a blog to specifically reveal what the government was hiding, only spurred him on. That is until the origin of the plague is discovered. Revealing the conspiracy to cover up the truth, he thought, would be too explosive and too damaging to the public trust and future health. In my opinion, the coverup was warranted but not the way Lommers went about it.

The appearance of the cordon very much echoed real life:

“We just saw it (the blockade) this morning. We came out and we couldn’t go anywhere. I haven’t heard from anybody in authority what happened,” Barry, 45, who works as a money changer, told Reuters.

Trapped inside is the Commander Faes’s girlfriend Jana, a product of care homes and therefore reluctant to fully commit to Faes despite loving him. She works in a computer lab with clean rooms, bodysuits and reinforced doors – a coveted hideout. Heroic Jokke is a police officer caught in the cordon while delivering supplies to the National Institute of Infections Diseases Antwerp (NIIDA). Vulnerable Katja is the school teacher and single mother who stupidly took a group of children, including her own child, to NIIDA on a school trip. Ineke is the pregnant teen. She’s trapped in the cordon during her attempt to runaway from her bad parents who run a grocery, a focal point for food and medical supply deliveries from the outside. Dr. Cannaerts is the senior doctor of NIIDA who relies on the ageing Bert the ‘rat man’ to supply him with test subjects used to find a cure. Bert’s dearly devoted wife is the sweet but fearful wheelchair bound Micheline. I adored this loved-up couple, their story and their ending.

Each of their experiences is harrowing as they’re forced to make morally ambiguous life and death situations day in and day out while mourning their friends and family randomly succumbing to the disease. Every time a decision had to be made it seemed the show was also asking the audience what they would do in the same situations. Would you steal food out of the mouths of babes when you own are starving? Would you euthanize the infected if asked by them to do so? Would you kill to protect yourself from infection?

It turned out a fat, ginger boy bullied by everyone was immune and could be used as a source for a vaccine. So never underestimate someone’s value just by their looks, you may need them to save your life one day. Tyl seemed to grow angel wings as he nursed the boys who bullied him as they lay on their deathbeds with little thought of his own life.

While I actually don’t know if Cordon is a direct adaption of The Plague, there are too many similarities to simply ignore the possibility that it provided inspiration since the latest Ebola outbreak was reported at almost exactly the same time the TV series was aired. As for the Flemish language, it possesses far more English words than I expected. Sometimes I didn’t even need the subtitles.

Only time will tell whether the US remake Containment will live up to the intensity of the original, which I highly recommend.

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