by Robert Atkins
The Netflix docu-series Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (2020) is smart and involving. Unlike fictional medical thrillers, this six-part miniseries opens with high drama—the unearthing of a mass grave from the 1918 flu influenza—rather than picturing about-to-be-shattered normality, a familiar Hollywood trope. Unlike documentaries that rely on voice-over narration, Pandemic is a fast-paced chronicle of life on the front lines of viral infection. It answers the question implied in its subtitle in two ways: first, by showing us the unimaginable complexity of detecting infected animals in the wild before they transmit a virus to humans; and second, by suggesting the necessity of cooperation among all stakeholders, that is everybody from government officials to ordinary Joes and Janes. It is impossible to conclude that anything but dumb luck has saved us from millions (billions?) of casualties due to SARS, MERS, Swine Flu (N1H1), Ebola and other recently arrived viruses.
If this sounds dry, blame my inadequate powers of description. The “plot” arises from the daily lives of the nearly dozen characters the series tracks, each working separately in different parts of the globe against a common enemy. (If this were a commercial film, these scientists and healthcare workers, politicos and activists would encounter each other.) They include: Ghazi Kayali, a Lebanese-born epidemiologist in Cairo; Michael Yao, a WHO staffer in the Congo who must simultaneously cope with Ebola and with terrorists encouraging locals to destroy clinics; Holly Goracke, the only physician in a nearly bankrupt, rural hospital in Oklahoma; Syra Madad director of NYC’s Special Pathogens Program; Caylan Wagar, an Oregon “anti-
vaxxer”; Jake Glanville and Sarah Ives, the US principals of the San Francisco-based start-up Distributed Bio, which conducts research on viral immunity in swine; and Susan Flis, a big-hearted, retired nurse who administers flu shots to those detained along the border. None are household names; the only thing they share in common is frustration with the lack of time and resources and the stress of dealing with unfamiliar social circumstances and constant exposure to death.
This focus provides viewers with relief from dry statistics and conflicting prognostications, while offering useful information about pandemics in general. As more and more details about each character are revealed, our interest in them deepens. Each has paid a high price for their work. Goracke is seen as a denial-prone, born-again Christian whose medical work is destroying her family, while Madad’s Muslim faith is more rational and appropriately compartmentalized. Wagar is a libertarian who home schools her children,
“Each step in the escalation of the AIDS crisis was predictable and could have been countered.” –Dr. Mathilde Krim, American Foundation for AIDS Research
while Flis provides those incarcerated in close quarters at the border with inoculations — i.e., the option not to die in INS “care” like the four Guatemalan children last year. As the story unfolds, the complexity of the characters and their interactions mirrors that of viral infections they seek to eradicate.
The series plays to the intelligence and the presumptive open-mindedness of viewers. A nurse condemns the anti-vaxxers as selfish, for instance, after one of their ilk has prompted the Republicans in Oregon’s state capital, to leave town rather than vote on a bill demanding vaccinations as a pre-requisite for public school enrollment. It’s easy to sympathize with the nurse’s characterization of the anti-vaxxers, but they, too, are presented as sincere. This presentation of all sides of the issue is both a plea for understanding and an affirmation of just how complex the problems we face really are.
The cliché, “ripped from the headlines,” certainly seems apt. So, too, does Mathilde Krim’s long-ago assessment that “each step in the escalation of the AIDS crisis was predictable and could have been countered.” (She founded AmFAR, the organization for which Elizabeth Taylor famously served as spokesperson.) Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds promising medical research, including that performed Distributed Bio, the San Francisco-based company whose Guatemala branch is seen in Pandemic. The bridge between then and now is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-standing head of the National Institutes of Health, frequently seen on stage during the president’s fact-free-for-all daily briefings. In an editorial last week, the Boston Globe savaged the president for his lack of leadership, going so far as to accuse Trump of “having blood on his hands.” This is precisely the same language ACT UP employed against President Reagan during the 1980s. And we know how that turned out.
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“Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” is currently airing on Netflix.
Robert Atkins is a writer and art historian, currently at work on The TrumPoems and The Eternal Frame: Sex & Politics in Recent American Art, a collection of three decades of his writing. Start your free Subscription to Squarecylinder and receive future postings of Mediations: a Covid-19 Journal.