Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 29 May 2020

‘Pandemic: Covid-19’: new Discovery documentary tries to make sense of the outbreak

The new documentary, which premieres in the region on Tuesday, March 31, traces the journey of the coronavirus pandemic and its global impact

Medical staff members working at the isolation ward of the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. STR / AFP
Medical staff members working at the isolation ward of the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. STR / AFP

We’ve seen plenty of headlines surrounding virus-related content since Covid-19 became headline news. First, Netflix’s docu-series Pandemic captured the public imagination with its seemingly prescient launch on the streaming platform as the virus began to take hold. Then, Image Nation Abu Dhabi-­produced drama Contagion, which was released in 2011, surged to the top of the global download charts almost a decade after it landed in cinemas. And tonight, Discovery Channel will screen a new documentary that, rather than being uncannily similar to the current global emergency, is actually about it.

Pandemic: Covid-19 charts the journey of the virus suspected to have transmitted from bats in a Chinese wet market to humans. It follows its spread across Asia and Europe, and its initial entry to the US, believed to have been brought by a traveller from China entering the country via Seattle Airport. The feature follows the rapid spread of the virus, the medical efforts to contain and treat it, and its social and economic effects on a fearful world.

With the outbreak spreading so quickly and the situation on the ground changing on an hourly basis, there was always the risk that the documentary could become out of date before even making it to our screens, but Christine McDaniel, former deputy assistant secretary at the US Treasury Department and deputy chief economist in Australia’s patent office, who appears in the documentary to offer her thoughts on the virus’s economic and social effects, insists it’s not trying to take the place of rolling news coverage.

“This documentary is not really people just chasing the news or trying to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she tells The National. “This is really taking a big step back and then going deep on to the ground – why Covid-19 is unique; why the world was so unprepared for it. We will take an in-depth look, starting from the very first patient. I think it will be a really accessible way to understand the pandemic in a way that brings everybody to experts, but explained in a way that’s engaging and the viewer will be able to walk away with a better understanding.”

Staff members spray disinfectant at Wuhan Railway Station in Wuhan, China. STR / AFP 
Staff members spray disinfectant at Wuhan Railway Station in Wuhan, China. STR / AFP

The virus has now spread to every inhabited continent, with barely a country unaffected, although different countries’ responses appear to have been met with different degrees of success. Although it is still too early to make any firm conclusions, the UAE is one country that seems to be coping well with the virus so far, having brought in widespread testing and movement restrictions early, before the outbreak got out of control.

This documentary is not really people just chasing the news or trying to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Christine McDaniel

McDaniel is not an epidemiologist, but she has a good idea of what measures are effective against the coronavirus. “Ultimately, it is up to countries to make their own decisions, but really, no matter how you look at the numbers, the one country that stands out, that seems to have survived this in a way that other countries can only wish to, I think is South Korea,” she says.

“Even on its worst day, their cases were just a fraction of what other countries are seeing, and they did three things. They took swift action very early on, they did widespread testing and contact tracing, and then they had really critical support from citizens across the country.

“So it’s very smart, very aggressive, working together. And we can definitely see that the longer a community or society waits to take these measures, the more likely they are to see this exponential increase in the infection rate. And once that gets out of control, it’s very hard to contain,” she explains.

McDaniel’s prime area of expertise, however, is the economy. With stock markets in turmoil, businesses closed and currencies plummeting in the worst-affected countries, there’s no doubt the economic effects of the pandemic could be almost as pronounced and long-lasting as the health effects. So how does she see the long-term outlook for the global economy?

This photo taken on February 18, 2020 shows members of a police sanitation team spraying disinfectant as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Bozhou, in China's eastern Anhui province. Getty Images 
Members of a police sanitation team spraying disinfectant as a preventive measure against the spread of the the coronavirus in Bozhou, China. Getty Images

“[Markets] are not good where there is uncertainty. That’s why we see so much fluctuation, because there is just not a lot of information yet on how to weigh these different costs and benefits. It’s literally changing by the day. So we obviously need more data on what works and what doesn’t. We’ve never been in this situation before. We don’t really know how this is going to play out.”

The harsh economic reality of the virus is that while many businesses will be crippled by it, there will also be winners, including communication tools such as Zoom, whose stock recently hit an all-time high, and providers of entertainment to quarantined populations.

McDaniel insists, however, that even those businesses that are unintentionally profiting from the crisis shouldn’t become complacent. “As we’re all forced to stay inside, things that keep us entertained inside the home, like the streaming services, entertainment, those types of services are likely to continue to thrive – up until a point,” she says. “And then as unemployment skyrockets, at some point, people will stop their subscriptions. But for now, just putting a short-term pause on the economy, you do see a surge in those services that help people stay connected digitally and keep people entertained without needing to leave the home.”

Stepping back from the hard economics, however, McDaniel says that her job, like the crisis itself, is a human one, and she hopes we can learn lessons from these unprecedented times to take forward into a post-coronavirus world. “For economists, we study human behaviour, and it’s really made us think about it on a more fundamental level,” she insists.

“We’re reminded that we wake up every morning thinking that our day is going to be pretty much like it was yesterday. When you look at human behaviour through that lens, you can understand why it has taken most societies longer than the health experts would have liked to really adjust to this new reality we’re living in,” McDaniel continues. “I think [the thing] that came out of it for me was that, at the end of the day, how humans are social creatures and how much we need each other.”

Pandemic: Covid-19 debuts at 10pm tonight on Discovery (OSN 500) and repeats tomorrow at 2.05am, and on Saturday at 10.50pm

Updated: April 2, 2020 03:36 PM

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