Debuting Sept. 9 on YouTube, the 31-minute documentary “American Pathogen” concisely and grimly tells the story of COVID-19 as it has unfolded over the past seven months, with heartbreaking narration by acclaimed actor Jeffrey Wright tying everything together.
Created by a team including Portal A, the Bay Area production company that made “Ed Lee, 2 legit 2 quit,” it includes up-to-the-moment facts culled just days ago, and new Zoom interviews with Juliette Kayyem, former U.S. Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs; Dr. Rishi Desai, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intelligence officer; and Chris Lu, former deputy secretary of labor.
It begins with the dispiriting fact that the U.S. is currently No. 1 in the world in total infections and total deaths (189,000 in the video, and 190,000 as of Sept. 9).
Flashing back to January, the video shows how President Donald Trump was briefed, repeatedly, about COVID-19, and that a Pandemic Playbook, culled from years of data, was available. Trump ignored it, left government science positions vacant, eliminated other positions, and cut funding to bodies such as the CDC.
When it was discovered that American test kits were defective, German test kits could have been obtained and distributed, but nothing was done. Instead, Trump held half-a-dozen rallies, rarely mentioning the virus.
“If we had taken that German test and gotten it out there with contact tracing, we would not have had to shut down the country,” says Desai.
The video adds that 90% of virus-related deaths could have been prevented.
Trump appears in many briefings and interviews in which he lies about the virus being under control, wrongly comparing it to the seasonal flu, or else blaming it on China, or on Barack Obama, or on governors of the 50 states.
“This is a president seeing the warning signs… and telling the American public the opposite, telling them to go on with their lives, telling them it was contained, telling them they didn’t need to change their behavior,” says Kayyem. “That, to me, is the malfeasance that is unique to this administration’s response.”
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared a national pandemic. The film shows Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, saying, “We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
In the U.S., spring break was allowed to continue without social distancing.
Finally, states began to go on lockdown, and the virus curve began to flatten. But Trump worried about the sinking economy and pushed to open up again, too soon, and without a plan.
“The moment you stop doing the only thing that’s working, of course the virus is going to start spreading again,” says Desai.
Physician and writer Dr. Leana Wen looks at other countries — including Germany, South Korea and New Zealand — that successfully curbed the virus via swift action: “We know that public health is the road map to economic recovery,” she says.
The video ends with the way things are now, just a little over a month after Trump’s interview in which he stated “It is what it is,” describing the crisis.
“The casualness by which this president is willing to accept American casualties… you sort of can’t get your head around it,” says Kayyem.
Before the end credits, Wright urges viewers to consider before voting: “Faced with the biggest health crisis in a century, we have seen what Trump’s leadership means for America, and we have paid with our jobs, with our futures, with our lives.”
The filmmaking team includes Sarah Sherman, former producer at The Atlantic; Seamus McKiernan, former writer at Player’s Tribune and HuffingtonPost; and Pierce Wilson, documentary editor and animator, as well as Nate Houghteling, co-founder and executive producer at the Bay Area-based production company Portal A.
“With the deluge of news about COVID-19 and the gaslighting on social media, it’s easy to lose sight of what actually happened,” said Houghteling in a press release.
Wright added, “It’s critical to get the facts on the record before the November election, and projects like ‘American Pathogen’ will help us all remember: It didn’t have to be this way.”