If you’ve been a reader for a while, you’ll know that I love documentaries. There have been some really interesting documentary films and series made over the years that I’ve been lucky enough to see, including many whose subject matter I would never have thought to explore otherwise. Netflix is actually a great platform for documentary content. I don’t know how many films and series they have available in the genre – and unfortunately it will vary somewhat depending on where you are in the world – but there are a lot of interesting ones to check out, including some that have been nominated for major awards.
It was with all of the above in mind that I decided to try Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, which was released in January 2020. I’ve always had an interest in things like disaster preparedness and emergency planning, so it definitely piqued my curiosity when it appeared on my list of things to watch that Netflix recommended. I’d been meaning to check it out ever since, but as always, there were other things to see and do!
Pandemic follows a few different individuals, mostly medical professionals, in a number of places around the world as they work on various aspects of disease prevention and treatment. It’s actually incredibly ambitious in that regard, telling the narrative from different places and different perspectives. The filmmakers visited such diverse places as the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Egypt, Guatemala, and various locations in the United States – a truly huge amount of travelling that must have massively inflated the budget of the series. And the end result is definitely the better for gaining different perspectives.
Some of the locations visited – like Rajasthan in India and Cairo in Egypt – are incredibly densely populated, and as Pandemic goes to great lengths to show, are much more vulnerable to influenza – the disease which is the focus of the documentary – as a result. Seeing those places, and the overcrowded buildings and streets, instead of merely reading about them or having them explained in a voiceover, was definitely an interesting aspect, one that the filmmakers have clearly wanted to convey.
Given that a pandemic of a disease like influenza is a global problem, I think it’s important that any attempt to cover the subject matter should be global in scope. Only seeing a European, American, or western perspective would be more relevant to Netflix’s core audience, perhaps, but would be limited in its messaging and understanding of the topic. The truth is that, in a lot of cases, it’s places in the third world that are worst-hit when a disease outbreak occurs because the infrastructure and medical facilities aren’t present in the same way, and the level of preventative care – like inoculations – and post-infection treatment is of lower quality. That’s not meant to be a criticism – there are clearly people in those regions working incredibly hard. But it is the reality that millions of people in some countries aren’t vaccinated against, for example, tuberculosis – despite the vaccine having existed for decades.
As well as looking at some of the history behind disease prevention, and the scientific research that is ongoing, Pandemic is also a series of personal stories. We spend time with many of the documentary’s subjects as they go about their lives, interact with their families, and discuss the impact that their work can have on their life and those around them. In that sense, it was a much more personal look at the subject than a documentary that focused on facts, figures, and interviews staying on-topic would have been. While I enjoyed that aspect of Pandemic most of the time, there were some moments that were awkward and clearly scripted, or at the very least set up to get the exact shot and line that the filmmakers wanted. There’s a line that a documentary filmmaker has to walk when doing something like that, and at times Pandemic was on the wrong side, as some of these scripted moments ended up feeling like the film was being dishonest. By presenting a scene through the camerawork and editing as if it were a genuine, spur-of-the-moment conversation when it clearly was not, some of these sequences ended up feeling forced and fabricated. While there weren’t too many of these moments such that the series was overwhelmed by them, it did suffer as a result.
When considering Pandemic, we do have to talk briefly about the current coronavirus outbreak. Pandemic was made last year, before this current outbreak had begun, but how we approach it – and indeed the fact that more people have been interested in it – can’t be completely detached from the current situation. Coronavirus is not influenza; the two viruses are very different and thus will have to be approached differently by governments and medical staff. But much of Pandemic’s subject matter is applicable to the current outbreak – most notably how easily it can spread and how it can take root in some of these densely-populated areas in the third world where healthcare and hygiene are worse than here in the west. In that sense, Pandemic is a timely release – with all the fuss in the news at the moment about the spread of coronavirus and the various quarantines and other steps being taken to stop and prevent its spread, there are lessons to be learned from this series.
Politics is at play in Pandemic; it is a deeply political series at times. For some people that will be offputting, especially because the way some political issues – like migration – are handled are very one-sided. There are numerous swipes and digs at Donald Trump and his administration in particular, as well as interviews with Democratic Party politicians, legislators, and supporters. It would have been worth the filmmakers including some kind of statement at the end of the episodes where these people appeared to say that they did ask Republicans to join in with the series – if indeed they did ask. That would have shifted the blame for the lack of political inclusion to those who refused to participate.
Healthcare is a political issue. The inclusion of politics is thus unsurprising, and Pandemic does not claim to be a balanced, all-around look at the subject matter. Many documentaries are incredibly subjective in the way they handle their subject matter – look at Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11 as examples of that. This doesn’t make Pandemic worse, but it does mean that as the audience we have to be aware of the filmmakers’ leanings and biases and remember to treat it as a subjective piece. In 2020, there really isn’t such a thing as a truly objective piece of reporting or filmmaking, but even so, there will be numerous points where I’m sure that people who don’t fully subscribe to the filmmakers’ politics will be at least a little uncomfortable in the way some of the material is presented – I can tell you that I certainly was.
Staying with contentious political issues, one of the most interesting aspects of Pandemic for me is that the filmmakers went out of their way to track down and speak with anti-vaccination families and campaigners. The anti-vaccine movement has been growing for some time, and is widely blamed for a resurgence in diseases like measles which had once been essentially eradicated in the western world. It’s likely that, as we go forward into the new decade, decisions will have to be made about what rights people do and don’t have when it comes to issues like vaccination, and by letting the anti-vaccine campaigners speak for themselves, Pandemic did a good job of presenting both sides of the argument – even though it was clear from the way some of those sequences were edited which side the filmmakers were on.
Overall, I’d say that Pandemic approaches an incredibly broad topic in a personal way. The decision to present it through a series of separate, individual stories rather than as a more general overview of the topic definitely shows off different angles of how organisations around the world approach disease prevention, but at the cost of having a narrower focus than some documentary series covering the same subject might. I enjoyed it, it was interesting and informative, but certainly not comprehensive. However, given the position we’re in when it comes to the current coronavirus outbreak, I would recommend it – just so long as people remember to keep their fears in check. Some of the interviewees can stray into “doom-and-gloom” territory at times, and again considering our current situation in regards to coronavirus, this might be offputting for some. Regardless, I had a good time with the series. Netflix has both created and hosted a number of good documentaries, and Pandemic is a solid addition to its lineup.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak is available to stream now on Netflix around the world. The series is the copyright of Netflix. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.