No one has coughed more on film than Kate Winslet. The English actress had dire coughing fits in Heavenly Creatures, Finding Neverland, and, more recently (and most relevant to current anxieties), Contagion. In Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller, Winslet plays an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer dispatched to Minnesota to investigate the outbreak of a deadly virus. She soon develops symptoms, including a nasty cough, and then dies:

Even Jedi masters are not immune. Toward the end of Return of the Jedi, Yoda begins to cough, and within minutes he’s dead.

As much as the movies have made us fear coughing, during a pandemic, that learned behavior can also save lives. People should be suspicious of coughs right now. According to a World Health Organization report, a dry cough is the second most common symptom for Covid-19 (68% of cases), behind only fever (88%). Some who contracted the virus and recovered have since said the debilitating coughing fits were the worst part of the disease. One of the primary ways the virus moves from one person to another is through coughing.

For that reason, many governments and health organizations are adopting the policy of social distancing to reduce the likelihood that the virus spreads between people. If we were not as afraid of coughs as movies have taught us to be, then implementing that response might be more difficult. Intuitively, we know coughs aren’t always deadly, but right now it’s probably best to take a cue from Hollywood and act like they are.

Image: Universal Pictures

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