LLike the virus itself, programs about it have shifted from localized topics to a slightly larger domain and have now expanded to take a holistic view. It wasn’t a perfectly linear progression, of course, but most of the early documentaries were largely made up of footage recorded by medical professionals themselves, at work and then – exhausted and in tears – at home. .
Then, social distancing films recorded the impact on local communities and bereaved families, the experiences of survivors, and the long-term consequences for those who do not fully recover. Added to this are considerations and criticisms of the UK’s response to the crisis and comparisons – generally not very favorable – with that of other countries.
Now, from director James Bluemel and the team behind the collage of stories and footage that included Once Upon a Time in Iraq, we have the Three-Part Pandemic 2020 (BBC Two). I watched the first episode, a collection of firsthand accounts from Wuhan, Washington, Italy, Iceland and all points in between, putting together a picture of how the pandemic initially unfolded in the world.
The UK representative is Dr Amie Burbridge from Leamington Spa. Pictures at home show her doing karaoke on the night of her 40th birthday. Interviews now – perched, like the other subjects, on a stool against a gray background – show her grappling with memories of what happened next. “A lot of the things we tried at the beginning turned out to be wrong – because we didn’t know,” she says desperately. A voicemail message left to an unknown recipient by a counterpart in Italy reflects and reinforces the sense of disorientation and helplessness among medical staff. “I’m too messed up to write,” the post said. “I just can’t cope… I feel like a terrible nurse and a terrible person. There are people who are dying. And you can’t do nothing, no one can do nothing.
The growing disbelief of Qiongyao and Jie – a couple from Wuhan – as they watch the virus travel the world and witness countries’ divergent responses to it is the most effective evocation I have seen of the depth of madness. “The manual is here!” said a bewildered Qiongyao, after describing their lockdown procedures, with footage of sanctioned trips through the totally empty city. “And you don’t want to take it?” I just can’t figure it out.
After acknowledging the shock and fear as Covid arrives on various shores, the film goes deeper into its effects. He asks what the sociocultural ramifications might be, rather than just the medical or practical consequences, in an attempt to look beyond the immediate future.
His thesis is that upheaval – Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “move fast and break things” seems to apply to the pandemic as well as to the relentless world of big tech – offers an opportunity for change. Beyond death and destruction, what Covid has done most clearly is test our societies and illuminate their shortcomings – primarily, the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots.
In Bogotá, Colombia, the poor are literally waving red flags to signal their need: so that pandemic relief teams can identify those in need of attention, people are urged to hang up red towels, clothes. , anything, out of their windows. Entire communities turn crimson. The absolute need for food packages and other forms of assistance for more people than the local government realized they were living in such precarious conditions makes the economic divide very clear.
On the most optimistic interpretation – which I would say documentary makers are looking at – this need will be obvious even to the most ignorant. This should lead to late vital changes. Carlos Valencia, whose job it is to implement the peace treaties intended to unify Colombia after 50 years of civil war, is impressed by the spirit of solidarity among disadvantaged communities, but fears the effects on the search for lasting peace.
Pandemic 2020 is a masterful mapping of the physical journey of the virus and the emotional landscape of those affected. He also manages to sketch the possible routes for the future. It’s unclear whether grief and rage will lead to a revolution or a quick retreat to the status quo, but it really was something to watch a movie that dared to even contemplate no worse storylines. It might just be a measure of how crushed our minds have been, but that in itself felt like progress. On we go. And maybe, just maybe, up.