“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” – Fred Rogers
In this dark time, we are forced to examine the iniquities in our society: the way our economy is run, the accessibility of work and healthcare, and the multitude of ways in which the ideals of individualism and capitalism will be our downfall.
Finding ourselves angry and disoriented, we are very much “looking for the helpers”, clapping in unison for the NHS with renewed appreciation. But, in our eagerness to arm ourselves with information against this invisible enemy, we also find ourselves more vulnerable than ever to the baseless scientific claims circulating in tabloids and on social media.
Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak is a six-episode Netflix documentary series first released in January this year. As the numerous professionals interviewed reiterate, it’s only a matter of time before the next global outbreak, and with eerie prescience, that eventuality arrived in the form of COVID-19 around the time of its upload. Focusing on swine flu, seasonal flu, measles and Ebola, the series highlights the ongoing, emotionally moving battles we otherwise may have missed.
Picture this: a well-spoken woman, with a beautiful home, explaining how she only wants what’s best for her kids, working hard to teach them about consent. Idyllic and principled as she seems, she quickly turns vitriolic, vehemently against a new policy restricting the movements of her un-vaccinated kids.
Presenting this woman as a rational party could be dangerous but her interview is juxtaposed with care-workers and policy-makers fighting to afford and provide vaccines for everyone. Clearly, it’s a luxury she doesn’t appreciate, compared to the hundreds of refugees who line up eagerly for their flu shots. Some days, they are lucky, on others, staff at the US-Mexican border camp must disappoint, prioritising their limited supplies for children and pregnant women. We see Doctors Goracke in Oklahoma, and Vijay in Jaipur, working impossibly long shifts to keep flu victims alive, and can understand their frustration at this preventable problem getting out of hand.
Pandemic also presents a privileged perspective, following the early days of a breakthrough. Jake Glanville and Sarah Ives are working on a universal flu vaccine, based on as many previous flu strains as possible. For viewers who may not understand the process behind drug discovery, seeing scientists find new ways to tackle problems and systematically test their theories is brilliant. Not only do we see the successes often headlining the news, but the months and years of hypothesising, trouble-shooting, finding funding and stages of animal testing needed for those victories.
Though it may seem like the world has been caught off-guard, we can see the careful monitoring in place to track animal populations before this crisis. From migrating wild ducks in Baton Rouge, to bats in Lebanon, to chickens in Vietnam, viewers begin to comprehend the zoonotic nature of deadly pathogens and the paramount importance of testing, not just reactively, but proactively.
The production of Pandemic is a noble endeavour: breaking down a huge problem into the stories of individuals. Driven by passion and selflessness, they leave their families and put themselves on the front line. From Syra Madad who coordinates global responses from New York, to Susan Fils, a retired nurse administering flu shots in New Mexico, each contribution is invaluable. Though American in origin, the series eliminates borders, aligning inspirational people of different faiths and nationalities alongside each other with the same goal: to eliminate disease and save lives. It’s an honour to join them on their journeys, lament and celebrate with them, and use this valuable opportunity to learn about the intricacies of the important work they do for us.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak is now available to stream on Netflix
This series is attuned to our current climate as much as CONTAGION, the film. Thank you for this essay.