LLike the virus itself, the programs about it have moved from localized topics to a slightly broader field and have now expanded to take a global view. It hasn’t been a perfectly linear progression, of course, but most early documentaries were largely made up of footage shot by medical professionals themselves, at work, and then exhausted and tearful, at home.
After that came socially distanced films that record the impact on local communities and grieving families, the experiences of survivors, and the long-term consequences for those who do not fully recover. At the same time, there have been considerations and criticisms about the UK’s response to the crisis and comparisons, generally unfavorable, with that of other countries.
Now, from director James Bluemel and the team behind the collage of stories and footage that made up Once Upon a Time in Iraq, we have three-part Pandemic 2020 (BBC Two). I watched the first episode, a collection of first-hand accounts, from Wuhan, Washington, Italy, Iceland and all the points in between, putting together a picture of how the pandemic initially unfolded around the world.
The UK representative is Dr Amie Burbridge from Leamington Spa. Homemade footage shows her doing karaoke on the night of her 40th birthday. The interviews now, placed, like the other subjects, on a stool against a gray background, show her struggling with memories of what came next. “A lot of things we tried in the early stages turned out to be wrong, because we didn’t know it,” she says desperately. A voicemail left for an unknown recipient by a counterpart in Italy reflects and reinforces the sense of disorientation and helplessness of medical workers. “I’m too confused to write,” reads the message. “I just can’t cope… I feel like a terrible nurse and a terrible person. There are people dying. And there’s nothing you can do, nothing anyone can do. “
The growing disbelief of Qiongyao and Jie, a couple from Wuhan, as they watch the virus travel the world and witness different responses from countries, is the most effective evocation I have ever seen of the depth of the madness. “The textbook is here!” says a bewildered Qiongyao, after describing his lockdown procedures, with pictures of authorized travels through the completely empty city. “And you don’t want to take it? I just can’t understand it. “
After acknowledging the shock and fear when Covid reached various shores, the film delves into its effects. He wonders what the sociocultural ramifications might be, rather than simply the medical or practical consequences, in an attempt to look beyond the immediate future.
His thesis is that turmoil – Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “move fast and break things” seems to apply to both the pandemic and the fierce world of big technology – provides the opportunity for change. Beyond death and destruction, what Covid has most clearly done is put our societies to the test and illuminate their flaws, predominantly the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
In Bogotá, Colombia, the dispossessed literally wave red flags to signal their need: In order for pandemic relief teams to identify those in need of care, people are asked to hang red towels, clothes, anything, on their floors. Windows. Entire communities turn crimson. The stark need for food parcels and other assistance for more people than the local government had realized were living so precariously makes the economic divide very clear.
In the most optimistic interpretation, which I would say documentary makers are inclined to, this need will be obvious to even the most deliberately ignorant. It should bring about a delayed life change. Carlos Valencia, whose job it is to implement peace treaties designed to unify Colombia after 50 years of civil war, is impressed by the spirit of solidarity within disadvantaged communities, but fears for the effects in 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. It also manages to outline possible routes for the future. It is unknown if the pain and anger will provoke a revolution or a rapid retreat to the status quo, but it was enough to see a movie that dared to even contemplate scenarios that were not the worst. Maybe it’s just a measure of how much our spirit has been crushed, but that in itself felt like progress. We continue. And maybe, just maybe, upwards.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism