COVID-19 has been a dominant influence in the lives of many people over the past year and a half, but there are many things we still don’t know about the early days of the pandemic. Nanfu Wang’s documentary In the Same Breath makes an important contribution to the efforts to understand what happened and when, as it gets past the official version of events by the Chinese government to gather information directly from people in Wuhan.
In the Same Breath opens with a shot of New Year’s celebrations in Wuhan, as the transition from 2019 to 2020 is marked by a glorious festival of lights and colors (it’s a seriously impressive celebration, by the way—even the skyscrapers put on a coordinated show). An optimistic address by President Xi Jinping is broadcast nationally, accompanied by shots of a series of massed song and dance performances, and the general vibe is that 2020 is going to be a great year.
A more disturbing news report from the Wuhan police was also broadcast on Jan. 1, that “eight people were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.” Most people were too busy celebrating the New Year, and generally getting on with living their lives, to pay much attention. Case in point: Wang traveled to China on January 19 to visit her family. She describes it as “the last time life still felt normal,” because soon afterward Wuhan, followed by much of the world, would be plunged into chaos and confusion by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wang flew back to the United States for a work trip on Jan. 23, No sooner had her plane landed than the Chinese government announced it was locking down Wuhan, and the city’s 11 million people were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. Many other cities in China also instituted isolation measures, in the hopes of preventing spread of the virus. Despite the efforts of government censors, scenes of overwhelmed hospitals, medical personnel in hazmat suits, and people literally dying on the street began appearing on social media.
Wang contacted multiple newspapers, including the New York Times, to alert them to the evidence of a serious disease outbreak, but none were interested. So, she took on the job herself, hiring local videographers in Wuhan to document the epidemic. Besides shooting with handheld cameras, they placed cameras at various locations around the hospitals, collecting some remarkably candid footage (and no doubt creating a monumental editing job as well).
One key fact uncovered by Wang’s videographers, and backed up by her research, is that people in China presented with symptoms of what came to be identified as COVID-19 as early as December 1. Some people with those symptoms were refused treatment at hospitals, and by the end of December the existence of a new coronavirus, similar to SARS, was being discussed. This was the “unknown pneumonia” that the government claimed did not exist, and the individuals punished for spreading “false rumors” were doctors who reported it on social media. A few days later, television news readers and health officials were confidently repeating the official government line that there was no evidence of person-to-person transmission (of that disease that according to the government didn’t exist anyway).
As COVID-19 spread out of control, and the story could no longer be suppressed, the Chinese government switched tactics, sending videographers to hospitals to create stories with a positive spin that emphasized the strength of the Chinese response to the pandemic and the occasional feel-good story that emerged (COVID-positive women giving birth were a popular theme). Despite this disingenuous behavior, it’s hard to entirely blame the Chinese government, because they were correct in their worry that China would be blamed for the disease. Remember Donald Trump calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus”?
In the Same Breath is sharply critical of the Chinese response to COVID-19, but also reminds us that Americans needn’t feel too superior. In fact, a substantial portion of this film is devoted to the United States, where, despite far greater resources, and a supposedly free press, a similar pattern of denial and minimization was evident, and a surprising number of people with no medical or scientific background confidently declared that the whole thing was a hoax. This part of the film will be more familiar to Americans, and may seem repetitive for that reason, but presumably the market In the Same Breath is larger than the United States. Besides, America is hardly alone in failing to respond promptly and adequately to the threat of a global pandemic. The real message of this film is less “China is terrible” and more “substituting wishful thinking and propaganda for scientific information seldom ends well.” | Sarah Boslaugh
In the Same Breath is available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.