Gay journalist and filmmaker David France’s magnum opus “How to Survive a Plague,” a documentary about AIDS activism, was released in 2012, 16 years after the introduction of effective treatments. (He published a more comprehensive book with the same name in 2016.) The story of HIV is not over yet, but the chapter described in “How to Survive a Plague” is. France has returned with a spiritual sequel, “How to Survive a Pandemic.”
It does not attempt to cover the entirety of COVID’s worldwide impact. Even just two years into the pandemic, that would require a very lengthy docu-series. Here, France zooms in on COVID vaccines. “How To Survive a Pandemic” is divided into two parts, with contrasting tones. The first part celebrates science and even government bureaucracy, striking an optimistic mood as they race to complete a COVID vaccine within a year. We’re not far from the wonky heroes of TV shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “The West Wing.” But once the vaccines have been released into the world, the second part is much more downbeat, demonstrating how the virus reinforced inequities between rich and poor countries (and within the US, between whites and people of color).
Reporter Jon Cohen becomes a stand-in for France, especially in the first part. The director began shooting this project in March 2020, as soon as COVID started shutting down ordinary life around the world. HBO’s budget allowed him to travel to Brazil, India, South Africa and Switzerland. (He previously made “Welcome to Chechnya,” a documentary about the persecution of gay men in that region.) Last year, HBO aired Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath,” which chronicled the Chinese and American government’s failed attempts to control the virus from December 2019 to March 2020.
“How to Survive a Pandemic” picks up exactly where it left off, but with a different tone. “In the Same Breath” paralleled Chinese and American failures. France looks kindly on American scientists, but while he doesn’t go as far into the politics around the pandemic as he could have, his film suggests how figures like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (shown delivering some appalling remarks about how people who fear COVID are “sissies”) prevented effective treatment. In the end, the targets of “How to Survive a Pandemic” are larger and less visible. It reports the enormous profits Moderna and Pfizer made from vaccines they patented and own the rights to. Three of Moderna’s executives became billionaires on the back of their vaccine; the CEO’s personal fortune skyrocketed to $4 billion. Meanwhile, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks about his refusal to get the vaccine until it’s available in his home country of Ethiopia. Footage of white people partying is cut with scenes of misery in the global south.
The issue of pharmaceutical patents and price gouging deserves a film of its own, and at times the 114 minutes of “How to Survive a Pandemic” feels too short. Much of it also seems familiar to anyone who has watched or read the last two years of news. The film follows the activism of Reverend Paul Abernathy, a Pittsburgh minister combating vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. It’s concerned with the patterns of lack of access to vaccines in South Africa or India reproducing themselves among America’s racial hierarchy. But it ignores the impact of media figures like Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson in promoting anti-vax sentiment to white people.
Several years from now, France should make a follow-up. One senses that the editing was rushed to complete it while staying timely. Back in 2020, Reverend Abernathy lamented how desperate “normal life” pre-COVID was and said “COVID disrupted everything; there’s a major opportunity here.” That opportunity for a more just country and world was squandered. Instead, Jeff Bezos and co. profited mightily from the pandemic while the poor, disabled, elderly and/or people of color died. The film ends with onscreen titles, one of which reads “If global distribution had been truly equitable in the first full year of vaccine availability, experts estimate that an additional one million lives might have been saved.”
We’ve learned to live with 1,000 COVID deaths/day in America as a fact of life, as op-ed columnists lecture their readers about how they’re so over taking the virus as a threat. “How to Survive a Pandemic” balances its dual task, singing the praises of the scientists who developed the vaccines while attacking the corporations making money from it, well.
“HOW TO SURVIVE A PANDEMIC” | Directed by David France | In English and Portuguese with English subtitles | Streams on HBO Max starting March 29th