“We need those summer dollars!”: Why the COVID shark is out there still

Posted on: 06 July 2020

In an opinion piece first published in the Sunday Independent, immunologist Prof. Luke O’Neill (pictured below) explores the parallels between the film Jaws and Ireland’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, casting Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan as Chief Brody, and the Great White Shark as the virus 



Out of the blue, the natural world comes up with something very scary. It kills people. Wreaks economic havoc. Sets up a conflict between public safety and the economy. It comes back in a second wave and kills again. Frontline workers put their lives on the line and suffer greatly. Science is brought in to beat it. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? But guess what: this isn’t Covid-19, it’s the movie Jaws.

When it was released in 1975, it became the first summer blockbuster movie. It’s the seventh highest-grossing film of all time, bringing in over $2bn (€1.8bn). The parallels are so striking it’s almost as if Jaws was written as an allegory for Covid-19. Perhaps that’s why it was released again in the US during the lockdown, earning a further $500,000, mainly from drive-in cinemas.

Remember how in George Orwell’s Animal Farm you could figure out that the old pig Napoleon was Karl Marx and Snowball was Trotsky? Mind you, a classmate of mine mustn’t have been paying attention the day we discussed how it was an allegory of the Russian revolution. When I told him about this after the Leaving Cert results came out, he realised why he’d failed English. He thought it was a lovely story about a farm and answered the question that came up accordingly. So for him, my old school friend, let me explain about Jaws and Covid-19.

The shark is the virus SARS-CoV2. Both come from apparently nowhere and kill people. Both then seem to go away. Chief Brody puts up warning signs, telling everyone to take care. He’s Tony Holohan, promoting awareness and trying to make sure people don’t die. Realising how serious it is, Brody brings in Hooper. He’s from the Oceanographic Institute and a world expert on sharks. Hooper is the immunologist trying to understand Covid-19 and come up with solutions. Brody wants to close the beaches to protect people, but Mayor Vaughn disagrees. He talks of economic collapse. Vaughn is the equivalent of people understandably worrying about the economy or their businesses. “We need summer dollars.” He’s like the CEO of Ryanair, Eddie Wilson.

Chief Tony Holohan (read Chief Brody, pictured below) has advised people not to go on foreign holidays, but Eddie Wilson (read Mayor Vaughn) has said that the blanket ban is “completely disproportionate”. He has asked the Government to “get the balance right” between public health and business. He has said: “People will not lose their heads because they are on holidays.” I think we can assume he wasn’t referring to people getting their heads bitten off by a shark. This view is a bit like Vaughn ensuring that the beaches stay open. Wilson has said that if Ryanair customers follow the chief medical officer’s advice and don’t fly, they won’t get a refund. Vaughn versus Brody. Wilson versus Holohan.

Vaughn also warns Brody about talking about the shark: “You yell ‘Shark’ and we’ve got panic on our hands.” When they debate the issue at a town hall meeting, two sides emerge. Those who urge caution – “I didn’t raise my kids to be some fish’s lunch” – and those who don’t: “Nobody’s seen a shark. We’ll lose business. We’ll lose our shirt.”

When Hooper tries to warn Vaughn, speculating that it’s a Great White man-eating shark that is still out there and will come back for its noon feed, Vaughn challenges him, saying: “Like to prove that wouldn’t you? Get your name in National Geographic?” Hooper looks exasperated. Actually, maybe Vaughn is a bit like Ivan Yates.

Vaughn ignores the scientific advice and the shark comes back, wreaking further havoc. We hope, of course, that this won’t happen with Covid-19 but we can’t be fully sure.

Enter Quint, the shark catcher. In Covid-19, Quint is the frontline healthcare worker. He has seen a lot, including surviving the massive shark attack that happened in 1945 when the USS Indianapolis, on its way back from delivering the Hiroshima atom bomb, was sunk by the Japanese. “Eleven hundred of us went into that ocean; 316 got out. Sharks took the rest. June 29, 1945.”

Like so many of our health care workers, he has seen an awful lot and has huge experience. He clashes with Hooper the scientist: “You may be a big yahoo in the lab, but out here you’re just supercargo.”

He takes on the task of killing the shark. With a battered old boat (read insufficient PPE) clearly not big enough, he tries hard, but is eventually killed by the shark. He did his best, but it all became too much of a challenge.

Finally, technology is used serendipitously (as happens a lot in scientific discovery) to kill the shark. A diving tank of compressed air is lodged in the shark’s mouth and Brody fires a bullet into it. The shark is blown to pieces. For Covid-19, the diving tank is the vaccine.

We’ll need a bit of serendipity, an awful lot of technology, and just one of the different strategies being pursued to make a vaccine that will slay the virus. The ‘bigger boat’ is the pharmaceutical industry, running at warp speed.

It’s all there, right? The battles being fought between public health and businesses. The healthcare workers doing their best. The scientists being challenged. Fear, denial, envy, concerns about reputational damage and professional rivalry. Humans behaving as they usually do, especially in a crisis. But also, people working together. People doing their job. Wanting to do their best for their fellow human beings, using their knowledge, training and experience to keep them safe. Everyone being tested to their limits.

The closing scene says it all. Brody and Hooper are relieved it’s all over. They are sad Quint didn’t make it. They hope the tide is with them as they swim in on a make-shift raft, kicking in unison. They don’t know what day of the week it is. Brody reminds Hooper that he hates the water.

Hooper has the last line in the movie and quips: “I can’t imagine why.” A little bit of humour in a grim situation going a long way.

Let’s hope those pressing for the reopening of our ‘beaches’ pay heed. The shark is still out there, and, if anything, given the rate at which it continues to spread, is as dangerous as ever.

On July 1, there were 10,446,353 cases and 511,037 deaths, but the numbers are likely to be much higher and the rate at which these numbers are going up continues to accelerate.

Now more than ever we must listen to our own Brody and Hooper. We can then look forward to swimming with the tide, having vanquished the shark that is Covid-19.

* I must take this opportunity to thank our very own Brody, Tony Holohan, who has stepped back from his role as chief medical officer. I’m sure Tony was worried and even scared at times, but never showed it. He was reassuring, working tirelessly and compassionately, doing his best to protect us. And just like Brody, up against it.

He remained steadfast throughout and got us to where we are today: we have the lowest current incidence of Covid-19 in Western Europe – a huge achievement. And I’m sure he will still be on hand to help us again.

Media Contact:

Catherine O’Mahony, Media Relations Officer | omahonc7@tcd.ie |