The hustle and bustle of people crossing the streets, subway trains packed with passengers speeding down the tracks, and the clank of silverware against plates alongside the chatter and laughter in a crowded restaurant— such vibrant scenes of life have dissipated from our lifestyles since COVID-19 took over the world. Our sense of normalcy has been upturned, and we find ourselves missing pieces of life that we perhaps took for granted previously. It’s easy to romanticize the past—especially knowing that some of the 8.64 (+78,586) million cases and 225,000 (+871) deaths in the United States could have been prevented.
In his latest documentary, Totally Under Control, Alex Gibney explores the ineptitude of the United States government in responding to COVID-19. Filmed in secret for 5 months, Gibney documents the United States government’s approach to COVID-19, beginning on Jan. 7 when the chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, Scott Becker, first heard about the then-novel coronavirus. From the get-go, Trump’s indifference towards the virus has been palpable, his attention focused on his re-election campaign and the economy.
Throughout the documentary, Gibney traces the many events and warnings that were swept under the rug such as the Diamond Princess cruise ship which became a petri dish for COVID-19 to spread and infect people. In fact, they brought up many episodes, such as when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended the public not to wear masks because of the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. During that moment, many of us were shocked, disappointed, and indignant at the lack of leadership the current administration has shown. However, as if it were all a fever dream, those moments were washed away by the constant stream of new political drama. What’s great about Totally Under Control is that it refuses to let us forget; it jogs our memories of what happened these past few months.
It took some time to compare the responses of the United States and South Korea, both who saw their first cases in January. South Korea successfully mobilized to prevent the virus’s spread, avoiding shutdowns and economic repercussions, and unlike the United States, South Korea kept the pandemic apolitical. Instead of letting politicians inform the public’s response, everything was left up to the experts as to how to proceed. In comparison, to see the United States do so poorly in handling the virus, especially since 90% of the medical textbooks in Korea are American and N95 masks were invented here, the South Korean doctor Kim Jin Yong expressed his disappointment.
This was the general sentiment of many health officials who were interviewed—disappointment, exhaustion, and unease. Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority from 2016 to 2020, appeared anxious as he spoke about the incapability of the Trump administration to step up. He consistently sounded the alarm that there were not enough N95 masks in circulation; however, the government responded with silence and assured that things were “under control.” Max Kennedy Jr., a volunteer for Jared Kushner’s “task force,” exposed the lack of organization and authority of the group, explaining that the volunteers had no procedural guidelines and had to cold email many companies themselves in order to procure N95 masks.
Healthcare workers, who work on the frontlines of COVID-19 and care for patients, also expressed their immense disappointment in the Trump administration’s mishandling of the virus. Taison Bell, the ICU director of the University of Virginia Medical Center, described feeling helpless, especially since the virus mercilessly attacks communities of color. Many people of color work in vital parts of the service sector as “essential workers,” constantly exposing themselves to the virus.
Totally Under Control juxtaposes these interview clips of public officials and healthcare workers with clips of Trump proclaiming that they have it “totally under control” and that there is nothing to worry about. Individuals well-versed in public safety who are warning the immense dangers of COVID-19 come in stark contrast to Trump and his administration downplaying the virus as much as possible in order to suit his reelection agenda. This illuminates this country’s failure to heed warnings and the bright red flags all around. The blatant lack of human empathy and absolute negligence has cost the lives of thousands of United States citizens and has compromised the health of millions of others.
Gibson ends the documentary with a call-to-action addressed to the American people. He asks us to constantly be on alert in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to not become numb to the constant news filtering through our radios and TVs, and to call out those in power who have done nothing but downplay the predicament at hand. Although the end may appear out of sight, it’s critical for all of us to play our respective roles in mitigating the spread of the virus so that an end to this may soon be visible, and we can go back to enjoying the lives we had before.