On Jan. 20, 2020, both the United States and South Korea confirmed their first cases of COVID-19. In the nearly nine months that have followed, the U.S. has suffered more than 215,000 deaths — a staggering 20 percent of total worldwide coronavirus mortalities, despite only accounting for 4 percent of the global population. In contrast, South Korea has recorded 434 total deaths, or eight deaths per 1 million people, versus the America’s 665 deaths per 1 million people.
So what went wrong in the U.S.?
Totally Under Control, the buzzy new documentary co-directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney along with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger that takes aim at President Donald Trump and his administration’s handling of the pandemic, presents a simple thesis: It was “politics over science.”
“If you think about the Titanic, this was an administration that was heading straight toward the iceberg, and instead of turning the ship one way or the other, just pretended that the iceberg wasn’t there, for political reasons,” says Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief) in a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment (watch above) where he was joined by Harutyunyan and Hillinger. “The resulting catastrophic loss of life and cratering of the economy [was] all due to intentional inaction for political goals.”
Commended for its calm, matter-of-fact tone, Totally Under Control replays several of Trump’s most infamous comments (“One day, like a miracle it will disappear” and “we have it totally under control” — the line from which the doc draws its title) as well as the president’s interview with Bob Woodward in which Trump admitted to intentionally downplaying the virus’s threat. But the film also delves deep into bureaucratic failures at the CDC and FDA that slowed testing over the pandemic’s crucial first month to devastating effect, companies profiteering over desperately needed PPE for frontline medical workers, and a disastrous task force headed by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“This was an opportunity for Donald Trump to step up and be the leader that the country needs,” says Harutyunyan. “It was an election year, he knew the dangers of the virus, he was briefed about it, he had all these scientists that knew what to do. If only he listened to them, if only he took it seriously, he would’ve saved the economy — he didn’t have to lie to save the economy — and he would’ve saved lives.”
So what did South Korea do right?
“In South Korea, scientists lead, rather than politicians,” says Gibney. “They were able to attack the diseases, instead of having to mitigate the consequences.”
“In terms of testing, South Korea did on Jan. 27 what we did a month later,” Harutyunyan adds. “The information was there, we just needed to put political differences aside and look at what the administrations before this one had done with the other outbreaks.”
In Totally Under Control, the CDC and the FDA take their lumps for the U.S.’s failure to begin early testing to limit the spread of the disease, but Gibney maintains the blame all starts at the top.
“This administration was intentionally slow-walking testing,” he says. “Why? The less you test, the less you find out. And if you don’t find out anything, you can pretend the disease isn’t here, even though it’s spreading rapidly.”
In September’s presidential debate, Trump claimed that if Democratic nominee Joe Biden was in power, there would 2 million deaths, not 200,000. For the filmmakers, however, it’s not a partisan issue.
“When you have a person who doesn’t listen to scientific advice, it doesn’t matter whether that person is a Republican or a Democrat,” Harutyunyan says. “It matters that that person is Trump.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Co-director Suzanne Hillinger lost power in her home shortly after our interview began and was disconnected.]
Totally Under Control is now streaming on-demand and will be available on Hulu beginning Oct. 20.
— Video produced by Gisselle Bances
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