Lucy ManganThu, 1 April 2021, 10:00 pm
Like the virus itself, the programmes about it have moved from localised subjects to a slightly wider field and now have expanded to take in a global view. It hasn’t been a perfectly linear progression, of course, but most of the first documentaries were composed largely of footage recorded by medical professionals themselves, at work and then – exhausted and tearful – at home.
After that came socially distanced films recording the impact on local communities and bereaved families, the experiences of survivors and the long-term consequences for those who do not make a full recovery. Alongside that have come considerations and critiques of the UK response to the crisis and comparisons – not generally favourable – with that of other countries.
Now, from the director James Bluemel and the team behind the collage of stories and footage that comprised Once Upon a Time in Iraq, we have the three-part Pandemic 2020 (BBC Two). I watched the first episode, a collection of first-hand accounts, from Wuhan, Washington, Italy, Iceland and all points in between, putting together a picture of how the pandemic initially played out around the world.
The UK representative is Dr Amie Burbridge from Leamington Spa. Home footage shows her doing karaoke on the night of her 40th birthday. Interviews now – perched, like the other subjects, on a stool against a grey backdrop – show her struggling with the memories of what came next. “A lot of stuff we tried in the early stages turned out to be wrong – because we didn’t know,” she says, desperately. A voice message left for an unknown recipient by a counterpart in Italy reflects and reinforces the sense of medical workers’ disorientation and impotence. “I’m too messed up to write,” the message says. “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 around the world and witness countries’ differing responses to it is the most effective evocation I have seen of the profundity of the insanity. “The textbook is right here!” says a baffled Qiongyao, after describing their lockdown procedures, complete with footage of sanctioned trips through the utterly 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 arrived on various shores, the film digs deeper into its effects. It asks what the socio-cultural ramifications, rather than simply the medical or practical consequences, could be, in an attempt to look beyond the immediate future.
Its thesis is that upheaval – Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “move fast and break things” seems to apply as well to the pandemic as it does to the cut-throat world of big tech – provides the opportunity for change. Beyond the death and destruction, what Covid has most plainly done is stress-test our societies and illuminate their flaws – predominantly, the growing abyss between the haves and the have-nots.
In Bogotá, Colombia, the have-nots literally wave red flags to signal their need: so that the pandemic relief teams can identify those who need attention, people are asked to hang red towels, clothing, anything, out of their windows. Entire communities turn crimson. The stark necessity of food parcels and other assistance for more people than the local government had realised were living so precariously makes the economic divide abundantly clear.
On the most optimistic interpretation – to which I would say the documentary makers lean – this need will be obvious to even the most wilfully ignorant. It ought to bring about vital overdue change. Carlos Valencia, whose job is implementing the peace treaties designed to unify Colombia after 50 years of civil war, is impressed by the spirit of solidarity within deprived communities, but fears for the effects on the pursuit of lasting peace.
Pandemic 2020 is a masterly mapping of the physical journey of the virus and the emotional landscape of those affected. It also manages to sketch possible routes for the future. Whether grief and rage will bring about revolution or a swift retreat to the status quo is unknown, but it was quite something to watch a film that dared even to contemplate non-worst-case scenarios. Maybe it is just a measure of how far our spirits have been crushed, but that itself felt like progress. On we go. And maybe, just maybe, upwards.