Famine. Global thermonuclear war. Climate Change. Depleted natural resources. The list of things that might kill us all is endless, but new series Pandemic posits a simpler doomsday prophecy: the flu.
Through six episodes, Pandemic explores the various ways that a viral or bacterial outbreak could have devastating consequences, exacerbated by generally underfunded and underprepared health services. The focus is on the flu from the relatively minor (although no less lethal) seasonal flu that mutates every year. Then we have the ‘novel virus’ flus that appear and ravage against a human population with no natural immunity: such as swine flu, or avian flu. Apt, considering the coronavirus currently spreading scarily fast.
Pandemic is produced by Zero Point Zero Productions. They also created Netflix documentaries such as Broken (exploring the flawed products we use) and Rotten (picking apart the problematic global food industry). Clearly with a handle on the ‘scare you silly’ model, Pandemic is perhaps their least focused effort so far. It follows 8 or 9 individuals and explores the challenges they face fighting back disease, with some more interesting than others.
A snapshot into the strain faced by one doctor as she works 72 hours shifts is a little window into the health profession, yes. But the exploration of her faith and her home life adds nothing to the direction of pandemic health issues. Similarly, Pandemic opens with the Director for the U.S. Agency for International Developments Emergent Threat Unit looking sombre and talking about global doom. It sets a frightening tone, but then his globe-trotting brow-furrowing is soundly abandoned for most of the series.
The truly frightening aspect highlighted by Pandemic is both the lessons of history and the failings of the future. A particularly sobering graphic shows the 1918 flu outbreak that killed more than all the dead of World War I and World War II combined. And this was in an age before commercial air travel and packed to the rafters global population density.
Fear for the future comes from the ever frustrating anti-vaccine advocates. A narrative thread throughout the series follows one mother and her five children where she bangs on about personal freedoms and liberty from government. She opposes an Oklahoma state bill that would ban non-vaccinated children from places such as schools and daycare centres. The vocal and misinformed (or wilfully blind) minority, as always, damaging the health of the exasperated majority. Similarly, efforts to fight Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo are hampered by population mistrust and outright lethal militia violence directed against World Health Organisation workers.
Luckily it isn’t all doom and gloom. Some hope is seeded by Distributed Bio, an apparently renegade company trying to crack the code behind a ‘one-shot covers all’ flu vaccine. We see Jake (CEO) and Sarah (Principal Scientist) testing their wonder drug on pigs in Guatemala with very promising results. Similarly the efforts of Dr Syra Madad to claw in funding for organisations that can overview and direct crisis response to outbreaks and direct practice drills in hospitals.
Pandemic highlights some of the challenges that may result in the death of us all, yes. But it’s also a bit of a meandering show that, once past the shock value, has an incoherent tale to tell. The show closes with a shot of migratory birds in flight with the implication that we are powerless to stop the spread of disease. Scary, yes. But to be honest Rotten made me feel guilty about drinking water so that will linger in the memory much longer than Pandemic.
Words by Michael Record