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Totally Under Control

Directors – Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger – 2020 – US – Cert. 12 – 123m

***1/2

Documentary looks at the Trump administration’s handling of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US – in cinemas from Friday, October 23rd and on iTunes, Amazon, Google, BFI Player, Curzon, Sky, Rakuten, Virgin. On BBC iPlayer from Sunday, November 1st.

This is a documentary shot, as it were, on the hoof. It constitutes a record of near-contemporary events as they unfolded in the recent past, in two of three very specific geographic locations. Two or three because the subject is the early months of the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic in the origin of which the third country, China, specifically the city of Wuhan, played the major part. But this film isn’t really about China beyond that country’s being the source of the infection.

Nor is it really about the second country, South Korea, here quite reasonably held up to the audience as a paragon of virtue in its handling of the crisis. The film is really about the first country, the US, during this period, which had a playbook ready and waiting should such a crisis come to pass. Much of South Korea’s highly successful actions in containing and defeating the virus were taken from this so-called ‘Crimson Contagion’ playbook which America, under the so-called leadership of its 45th President Donald Trump, largely ignored.

Director Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, 2013) has something of a reputation for what you might call confrontational documentary, tackling a difficult subject head on and damn the consequences. His and his co-directors’ interest here lies in the machinations of US government departments, the way that was regulated by US law and its effects on Trump and his subsequent understandings and policies with regard to the pandemic.

January 20th was the day that both South Korea and the US had their first positive test of the virus, in Seoul and Seattle respectively. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had been in touch with its Chinese counterparts and they had a test ready. The 2016 MERS virus had terrified South Korea and the country had put laws in place to enable an appropriate response should anything like it recur.

In the US, President Obama had felt that scientists, not politicians, should make the calls in dealing with a virus and he’d put organisational tiers of scientists in place in the form of the Global Health Security Team (GHST) to deal with any future outbreak. In 2018, however, the Trump administration disbanded all this, partly because as a new administration coming into office they wanted to make a clean sweep and partly because they didn’t think this organisation necessary.

While South Korea put its plan into action, mobilising both tests for the vast majority of the population and a highly effective track and trace system using mobile phone technology, US health officials became paralysed by legal niceties which meant that the tests they’d issued to labs throughout the land were unable to be ratified because of a rogue component and thus went largely unused throughout February, many labs sitting idle. There were no statistics showing the rising number of cases, although these were undoubtedly occurring. This operational blunder, of institutional rather than political making, cost the health of the American nation dear.

As the situation worsened, Trump was informed of two things prior to leaving for the international summit at Davos. First, the situation was in hand. Second, that meant that serious action needed to be taken. Unfortunately, he took on board the first idea but not the second and this misunderstanding has permeated his attitude to the pandemic. Interviewed, he claimed the situation was “totally under control” and things would be back to normal soon. Meanwhile, the virus continued to spread.

Presenting the pandemic as a lie cooked up by the Democrats, Trump encouraged the non-wearing of masks which only made things worse. There is some truly frightening footage in here of people without masks deliberately coughing on others knowing that the virus wasn’t real. While South Korea kept its death toll down below 500, the US’ political leadership failed to follow the advice of its public health officials and the figures just kept going up.

You might think Trump was simply ignorant as to how the virus spread. But he knew, as evidenced by his February 7th interview with celebrated investigative journalist Bob Woodward, that “it goes through the air, Bob. It’s more deadly than the flus.”

In the film’s summing up, the health officials’ month long paralysis is forgotten with the emphasis most definitely on Trump’s failure to inject money in to the health departments, his reliance on the private sector to provide tests and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – which both upped the cost to the State and failed to deliver – and his protection of the rich at the expense of ordinary citizens.

The nature of the film means it stopped shooting the day before Trump himself tested positive and there’s an inevitable sense that we’re only seeing part of a longer story. This also means however that the film is out there before the upcoming US election: hopefully people will be smart enough to watch it in the interim and draw their own conclusions.

It’s surprisingly sketchy on China and glosses over the South Korean experience – I would have liked to have seen and heard more detail about how that latter country achieved what it did. In terms of its analysis of the US health administration and the Trump administration, though, it’s pretty damning. Worse, we’re told that both the Health and Human Services (HHS) and CDC departments failed to respond to interview requests for the film.

Totally Under Controlis out in cinemas in the UK and on iTunes, Amazon, Google, BFI Player, Curzon, Sky, Rakuten, Virgin on Friday, October 23rd. On BBC iPlayer from Sunday, November 1st.

Trailer:

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