Review: 'Pandemic' provides an informative but unfocused account of combating deadly viruses

by Shera Bhala | 4/16/20 10:57am

The Netflix docuseries “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” offers six episodes to binge-watch during self-isolation. If you have already seen the drama of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak” or are searching for a documentary perspective, “Pandemic” may be the show for you. Following the lives of doctors in the U.S., Asia and Africa as they combat flu viruses, the show reveals the challenges of preventing a deadly outbreak of influenza. Although “Pandemic” is flawed in its false advertising and dwells too long on its depiction of doctors’ personal lives, it still presents an overall interesting and accurate account of influenza epidemics and pandemics.

Each of the six episodes is divided into chapters that share the stories of different doctors around the world. The first episode introduces Dr. Syra Madad, the senior director of the special pathogens program for New York City Health and Hospitals. Dr. Madad dedicates her life to preventing pandemics, as she believes “these infectious disease outbreaks are scarier and deadlier than conventional warfare.” The viewpoint then shifts to the tiny town of Waurika, Okla. Dr. Holly Goracke is the only doctor in the only hospital in Jefferson County, where a former doctor was quoted as saying, “All I’ve got is an EKG machine, a stethoscope and a Bible.” 

In San Francisco, Sarah Ives and Jake Glanville, the founding partners and chief scientists of Distributed Bio, search for a vaccine against all strains of influenza. Claiming to differ from Big Pharma, which they say operates slowly and risk-aversely, Glanville believes he and Ives are more innovative and experimental. Meanwhile, Caylan Wagar, an anti-vaccination activist in Corvallis, Ore., homeschools her five children and contends that they have rights to their bodies upon which the federal government should not intrude. Finally, in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dr. Michel Yao wants to help mitigate the spread of the Ebola virus. 

Through these stories, the docuseries effectively portrays the existential threat of influenza viruses and the courageous doctors who confront these perilous outbreaks. “Pandemic” also reveals the challenges that doctors face with anti-vaxxers and militant opposition to health care aid. 

However, while “Pandemic” brings important issues about the flu virus to light, it fails to be a cohesive series. The six episodes are disjointed, constantly switching to different geographical locations and perspectives from doctors, scientists and others. Instead of creating one cohesive storyline out of several individual narratives, “Pandemic” becomes increasingly unclear and confusing. The show has the right materials, but it ultimately results in a messy finished product.

Further, one expects the docuseries to follow the scientific and medical explorations of the doctors, but it actually devolves into an over-personal glimpse into their lives. Over the course of the season, the marital struggles and strong religious beliefs of Dr. Goracke overwhelm the scientific focus of “Pandemic.” Episodes five and six include Dr. Goracke at her kitchen table with her kids, upset that her daughter has lost her faith and does not believe in God. In New York City, Dr. Madad discusses her religious life and is shown at home with her children and praying at the New York University Islamic Center. These portrayals share intimate details about the lives of these doctors but are ultimately superfluous and distract from the ostensible scientific purpose of the docuseries.

Additionally, the title “Pandemic” is itself misleading, as the show actually explores a variety of epidemics, such as H7N9 in China, Ebola in Western Africa and H5N2 in Egypt, along with the seasonal flu and measles. The series offers enough detail to create a documentary about various disease outbreaks, but not enough precision and nuance to create a clear study of disease prevention. “Pandemic” seems to be a misnomer, with the purpose of acting as clickbait to bored Netflix subscribers.

The series also acts as clickbait with its description. It claims to show a team of scientists conducting cutting-edge research to discover a universal flu vaccine. While this is true to some extent, as Glanville and Ives conduct their clinical trials on pigs, it is not really the focus of the six-episode series. Instead, the show leans into moments like Dr. Goracke eating tacos for dinner with her husband in the hospital’s break room.

“Pandemic” was released on Netflix in January, as the coronavirus was beginning to spread around the world. The docuseries is relevant to the current state of the world and provides an informative perspective on containing diseases. However, because of this timing, it seems as though one could glean the information in “Pandemic” from a single read of today’s news cycle. And, if one is inclined to watch a TV show or movie about deadly viruses, they may be more entertained by the dramatized films of “Outbreak” and “Contagion.”

Yet, perhaps the show foreshadowed the rapid and deadly spread of COVID-19, as the doctors warned that most countries are completely underprepared for a pandemic. Dr. Madad asserted that “the greater our complacency, the greater the crisis will be.” She was right — the world was largely complacent to the threat of COVID-19. Despite the structural flaws of “Pandemic,” hopefully the docuseries can provide some insight into the danger of influenza outbreaks and the importance of respecting legitimate medical advice.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!