There are echoes of France’s decade-old predecessor when the film reminds us of how life-saving drugs were not made available to AIDS patients in sub-Saharan Africa until the 2000s, despite the fact that HIV was no longer a death sentence in the United States by 1996. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization viewers have become well-acquainted with in previous Covid documentaries, reveals during the film’s final moments that he delayed his own vaccination until the people in his home country of Ethiopia received access to them. Ghebreyesus flatly states that the refusal of companies to share the recipes and data regarding their vaccines is fueled by greed. Had the film made this its primary subject, it may have been on par with the essential cinematic exposés on this crisis, the best of which remains Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath.” As it stands, “How to Survive a Pandemic” is inherently engrossing considering its subject matter, but may have benefited from more time in the editing room. It’s downright strange how a huge stuffed bear seated across the table from the FDA’s Dr. Peter Marks in his quarantined office gets roughly as much screen time as Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Science Magazine’s senior correspondent Jon Cohen serves as the film’s amiable guide, conducting interviews with experts such as Fauci, who claims to be the only man on President Trump’s task force who has the guts to tell his boss what he doesn’t want to hear. Trump’s desire to rush out a vaccine prior to his reelection makes him have zero patience for the safety tests Fauci says are crucial to run. Of course, Trump’s interest in making vaccines accessible grinds to a halt as soon as he loses the 2020 election, refusing to concede and allow Biden to assemble his own team. Though we briefly see Cohen arguing with a stereotypical Trump supporter proudly wearing a “Fuck Fauci” hat, the film is essentially preaching to the double-boosted choir, not making time to truly investigate why so many intelligent people—including members of my own family—have refused to be vaccinated, falling down the rabbit hole of QAnon conspiracy theories. When another anti-vaxxer insists that the former president would refuse the vaccine himself, she seems to have forgotten how Trump fell ill with Covid, and the vaccine is likely the reason why he is still alive.
Some of the strongest stretches of the film center on the impassioned Rev. Paul Abernathy, who attempts to get Pittsburgh’s reluctant Black populace vaccinated, despite their entirely justifiable skepticism. In an all-too-brief voice over, Abernathy notes that it isn’t just the monstrously unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which led to the deaths of 128 Black participants, that is the reason for citizens of color to have this hesitancy. It’s also the numerous ways in which institutional racism had led their community to be neglected and underserved for generations, as recently illustrated by the absence of nearby Covid testing sites. The reverend singles out the African-American co-developer of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, as a way to grab the community’s interest, and when a local man begins voicing QAnon propaganda, Abernathy provides a counterpoint with a Bible quote ordering those of faith to honor their physicians. Meanwhile, world leaders borrow Trump’s bullying rhetoric to downplay the importance of vaccines, with Brazil’s equally reprehensible president Jai Bolsonaro referring to those heeding caution due to the pandemic as “sissies.”