‘Pandemic’ teaches and terrifies

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As the first confirmed patient with newly discovered coronavirus in Chicago received treatment at St. Alexius Hospital in the Northwestern suburbs, I sat in my apartment and watched Netflix’s new docuseries “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” and felt my anxiety quickly rise to new, previously unmatched levels. In the first five minutes, viewers are ominously reminded that “When we talk about another flu pandemic happening, it’s not a matter of if, but when.” 

The timing of the show’s release could not be more frightening. The opening frames of the series feature archival footage of overflowing hospitals and mass graves from the 1918 influenza pandemic that resulted in an estimated 50-100 million deaths worldwide, leaving the viewer left to wonder if history repeating itself is on the horizon. 

While global efforts ramp up to prevent the continued spread of the coronavirus, a potentially deadly respiratory illness, “Pandemic” takes viewers inside the worldwide preventative effort against future viruses that evolve rapidly and for which humans have no prior immunity. 

As the global population continues to increase, so too does the risk for an even more catastrophic pandemic with potential consequences that reach into the realm of the unfathomable. The series follows Dr. Dennis Carroll The work of Director of the Emerging Threats Unit within the U.S. Agency for International Development. Carroll estimates that if there were to be a pandemic similar to those in the past, the loss of life could potentially reach hundreds of millions. 

The show takes care to highlight the overwhelming unpreparedness across the U.S. if a flu pandemic were to occur, focusing on a small, rural hospital in Waurika, Oklahoma where one doctor is responsible for the whole community. If a pandemic were to ensue, this hospital and countless others like it would be woefully ill-equipped to fight the spread of the virus. 

“Pandemic” also wades into the increasingly volatile debate surrounding vaccinations. The show follows a group of concerned parents in Oregon who very vocally oppose a proposed bill that would require their kids to receive certain vaccinations to attend public school and participate in many community sports and activities. Like many other anti-vaxxers, these parents repeatedly argue that the legislation encroaches on their freedom of choice as Americans.

At the same time, the show documents the research journey of a group of independent scientists working to develop a universal influenza vaccine that both eradicates the effects of past strains, as well as protects against mutations of the virus that have not yet been discovered. 

“Pandemic” focuses largely on the perspectives of those on the front line who are actively in charge of preventing and leading the response to a pandemic should one occur. Without exception, they are all resolute in the fact that the next pandemic is inevitable and it will be catastrophic. While I now have more tangible information on the source, spread and impact of these viral outbreaks, I feel no more prepared myself or confident in the government, health care or public response as it stands. 

And while it is mildly reassuring watching teams of brilliant scientists, researchers and public health officials actively work to trace, track and treat new viruses in the name of pandemic prevention, the level of certainty that they have when speaking of the inevitability of a viral outbreak is haunting.