'How To Survive A Pandemic' David France's new documentary as activism

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday March 29, 2022
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a scene from 'How To Survive A Pandemic'
a scene from 'How To Survive A Pandemic'

With all the grim news associated with COVID, we forget that the development of vaccines for this disease in less than a year ranks as one of the greatest medical triumphs ever.

Recognizing this towering achievement in 21st-century science, acclaimed investigative journalist and Academy Award-nominated gay filmmaker David France in his new documentary How To Survive A Pandemic, currently being streamed on HBO, takes an insider's look at the historic, multi-national race to research, develop, regulate, and launch COVID-19 vaccines.

Filming commenced in early 2020 within weeks of the lockdown, following over the next 18 months the largest public health effort in history, shooting across five continents. The documentary details the work of leading researchers, scientists, journalists, pharmaceutical company heads, government agencies, and healthcare workers on the pandemic frontlines, including interviews with Jon Cohen (senior correspondent for Science Magazine); Dr. Peter Marks (Director of Biologics Research at the FDA); Dr. Dan Barouch (lead scientist behind the Johnson & Johnson vaccine); Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (co-developer of the Moderna mRNA vaccine); and Dr. Anthony Fauci (Director of NIAID and Chief Medical Advisor to the President), among many others.

France, 63, spoke with the Bay Area Reporter in an email interview.

France began his career as a reporter covering the fight against AIDS, culminating in his 2012 documentary How To Survive A Plague. Many of the scientists and government officials he encountered during those years would play significant roles in the COVID pandemic, so he had extraordinary access to them, which younger media figures did not.

"When I moved into film, I set a challenge for myself to lift the stories of queer heroes up into the canon of American (or world) history. I think of How To Survive A Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, and Welcome to Chechnya as a trilogy on that theme, a study of queer activism in three different eras of our movement, and the ways that activism has shaped the larger world permanently."

France's new documentary emerges as a fervent defense of science.

"When COVID rolled in, my instinct was the same as it was when HIV arrived," said France. "Fight the disease with journalism. I went to work almost immediately."

Director David France  

Vaccine action
In the film, journalism becomes a weapon to fight misinformation and "fake news." For media coverage, France centered on Jon Cohen of Science Magazine.

"Jon Cohen is one of the most respected journalists in the vaccine and immunology fields, and also a veteran of HIV/AIDS journalism," said France. "I'd known him for years. And I knew he would know where the vaccine action was. He took us to remarkable places, thanks to the respect he has earned among these researchers."

For France, Cohen becomes an emblem to shield science from lies and conspiracy theories. What was the aim of the film?

"I wanted to tell the long-view story of the vaccine, by which I mean not just the work of scientists that produced these miraculous shots, but also to watch as the vaccines move to the furthest corners of the earth. We learned in HIV that the pills are only good for those who take them. For years and years, they were hoarded in the West and priced out of reach in lower income countries. I hoped we had learned the lessons from that time.

"How would history judge this scientific undertaking, the most consequential research initiative in our lifetimes? That was a subject that demanded to be documented. But it was also unseen. We take viewers behind those curtains for the first time to see what it took to bring us to the summit of scientific achievement despite the din of political intervention and corporate greed."

Expertise, unsullied by politics, ultimately saved the day.
When asked for the principal reasons why almost a million people died of COVID in the U.S., France replied, "We are at an historic juncture in the U.S. and around the world. Faith in science has eroded disastrously. Data are dismissed in favor of rumor. Experts are marginalized and autocrats are lifted up.

"Truth and fact are no longer recognizable or considered reliable. In this chaos, it would take a strong moral leader to help the country navigate this terrifying pandemic, but one never materialized."

France blames lack of accurate information, vaccine denialism, plus a deficiency of masks and ventilators in the pandemic's early months, as contributing to countless preventable fatalities.
One leader France does laud is Dr. Anthony Fauci.

"Fauci, whom I have known for decades, represents the best instincts of scientists. He has dedicated his entire career to finding treatments —and cures— for HIV. In this he has been almost unwaveringly on the right moral path. But as the leader of a major government institute, he is also a politician. We watched how carefully he chose to use anti-retrovirals. He was far less politically timid in COVID —and it's a good thing— inside the Situation Room in the East Wing, his voice stood as a wall against Trump's basest instincts, as he discusses in the film."

a scene from 'How To Survive A Pandemic'  

Inequal access
During the pandemic, with input from the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racial inequality in all areas of American life became more recognized. France made sure to document how such injustice would hopefully not be repeated in terms of people of color and low-income Americans having equal access to the vaccines, notwithstanding the general failure of public health throughout the pandemic.

France profiles Rev. Paul Abernathy, a combat veteran of the Iraq War and an Orthodox Christian priest, working in a predominantly Black underserved community in Pittsburgh.

With his Neighborhood Resilience Project team, they visited neighborhood people to increase confidence in the vaccine and convince them to get the shot in their arms, despite mistrust of government, past clinical abuse (i.e. the Tuskegee syphilis experiment), and distrust of corporations perceived as only making rich people even richer.

The second half of the film centers on the lack of global equitable allocation of vaccines with poor countries begging for access to them. France calls such unequal distribution, a "catastrophic moral failure," which he views as a principal lesson the world must learn in preparation for the next plague.

The documentary notes that four billion people, half of Earth's total population, were fully immunized in 2021. While rich nations finished 2021 with surplus vaccines, doses reached only 8% of people in low-income countries.

If global distribution had been truly impartial in the first full-year of vaccine availability, experts estimate an additional one million lives might have been saved. Nationalism and greed will go down as being the central failures in the way we dealt with a virus "that recognizes no national borders."


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