Watching “Totally Under Control” you really get the sense that the powers that be really don’t give a damn that there’s a thousand new cases a day, nor that masks have become a symbol of patriotism only if you don’t wear them. There’s a very likely theory for the apathetic response: the disease is most deadly toward people of color, those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly. “When America gets the flu, Black folks get pneumonia,” says the University of Virginia’s Covid ICU director, Dr. Taison Bell, quoting his grandmother (and my own beloved Mama). The disease also takes a mental toll on the people in Dr. Bell’s profession, fellow practitioners and nurses who are seen begging for extra masks and medical equipment at the height of hospital overcrowding back in March and April. This is the first time masks are used as political currency; governors are forced to bid on supplies only to be outbid by the federal government.
Gibney has assembled a wide variety of people with something important and insightful to say, including several who paid dearly for breaking with the administration’s marketing message to tell the truth. Former BARDA director Rick Bright, former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden and other medical professionals lead us through protocols and e-mail threads from way back in January when a lot of things were correctly predicted. We also hear from Beth Cameron of Obama’s administration and Mike Bowen, who gives invaluable information about how the N95 mask shortage occurred. Other people of note are Max Kennedy, a 20-year-old volunteer from the medical equipment procurement team and, to my surprise, Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, proponent of the hydroxychloroquine cocktail that the FDA touted earlier in the year. For the math junkies in the audience, there’s Dr. Eva Lee, whose pandemic-inspired mathematical models are fascinating and eerily prescient.
“Totally Under Control” will become a useful document for the study of this pandemic in its eventual aftermath. It’s a bit too surface-level to be completely satisfying, but it was enough to overwhelm and upset me so much that I had to turn it off several times to decompress. I had good reasons: I’ve lost several friends and family to the ‘rona, as my people nicknamed it, and many other family members have been infected. It’s the reason why I can’t see my parents, why I couldn’t attend funerals, and why I’m pretty much a prisoner in my own home where, thankfully, I can still work at a job I hope I don’t lose. Granted, I’m not sure how much differently things would be had a lot of the ideas depicted here been followed, instead of tossed into the wind out of fear of one person’s ego. But I am damn sure that I’d at least have an idea how much longer I’d have to endure this hell if they had been.
Now available on demand; available on Hulu on October 20