Totally Under Control, a new documentary that traces the American response to the coronavirus crisis, is not easy to watch. First, we already know the ending, and second, headlines over the past six months gave us a play-by-play of the unfolding disaster in real time.
We think we know how we got here—some combination of bad luck, bad governance, and bad timing. But the fog of chaos—deliberately and maliciously deployed, as this film, directed and produced by Alex Gibney (Enron, The Inventor), Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger, makes perfectly clear—obscured the gravest official, purposeful malfeasance in the history of modern American government.
Made in secrecy over the past five months, Totally Under Control—the film’s title is taken from Trump’s chipper first comments about the looming crisis—builds its case over two hours. Interviewees include whistleblowers such as the former director of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Rick Bright, sacked by Trump for refusing to push hydroxychloroquine, an unproven coronavirus cure, and Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson Max, a 20-something volunteer who busted out of a Trump-administration NDA to tell Congress about the epic failure of Jared Kushner’s private-sector P.P.E. project, the Supply Chain Task Force, staffed by young volunteers with no guidance or experience.
P Is for Profit
Eyewitnesses, speaking to the camera surrounded by coronavirus-protocol plastic sheets, share goggle-eyed accounts of malice and toadyism. They leave no doubt that the first goal of the administration was always ideological and profit-led, with top-down decision-makers—Jared Kushner and Trump, mainly—favoring free-market principles over expert advice. Objectors were ignored, expelled if they made too much of a fuss. Cynical hacks such as H.H.S. secretary Alex Azar—whose sheepish bootlicking will make your skin crawl—abandoned principle to maintain favor.
Scientists, policymakers, and businesspeople hold back tears describing to the filmmakers how the federal government deliberately impeded their ability to do their jobs, while hospital workers are shown in black garbage bags and other D.I.Y. P.P.E. The number of deaths due directly to the administration’s forcing of states and hospitals into a Hobbesian nightmare world of competition for equipment may never be calculable. To Kushner and Trump, acting in the public interest meant leaving money on the table. So, the Trump administration has allowed Gilead, the biopharmaceutical giant whose coronavirus research has been financed by taxpayers, to sell remdesivir, a drug that the filmmakers estimate costs $10 per course to make, for $3,120. (Yes, that’s the same drug that apparently helped allow Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus on October 2, to walk out of Walter Reed medical center after three days and return to the White House while still infected.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long regarded as the global public-health gold standard, is run by Trump cronies selected more for their Christian piety than for their scientific or policy experience. The tension between these political appointees and agency scientists has reduced the C.D.C. to a shambles. The organization quickly produced a working coronavirus test only to have federal bureaucratic rules deem it unusable due to a small flaw in a component that is not essential to the test’s ability to detect the coronavirus. (In fairness, these rules hail from the George W. Bush era. But the bureaucratic delay could easily have been overcome with decisive action from the White House.) “We weren’t able to do our job,” Scott Becker, the executive director of an association of public-health labs, tells the filmmakers, his voice breaking. “That was really tough.”
Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson busted out of a Trump-administration NDA to tell about the epic failure of Jared Kushner’s P.P.E. project, the Supply Chain Task Force.
It was only on February 28, after six weeks of “flying blind” while the coronavirus spread untested through Seattle and New York, that federal authorities relented, finally allowing public-health agencies to begin using the test. But the C.D.C., “for reasons unexplained,” put the brakes on the process, even while Trump was announcing at rallies and press conferences that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” At that point, Obama’s H.H.S. secretary Kathleen Sebelius tells the filmmakers, “for the first time it occurred to me the government was intentionally slow-walking testing.”
The Trump regime will blame the bogeyman known as “inefficient bureaucracy,” but when Trump wanted to push a malaria drug as an untested miracle cure for the coronavirus, the White House could and did break the red tape at the F.D.A.
Totally Under Control presents South Korea as what might have been—a parallel universe in which a central government acted as a nimble crisis manager, rapidly created tests, and deployed contact tracing before a single person had died, allowing a nation of 51 million to remain open. The country has emerged relatively unchanged, with fewer than 500 deaths. “There is a real sense of disbelief” in South Korea at what has happened in America, one Korean journalist tells the filmmakers. An epidemiologist with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, shaking his head at how the American C.D.C. failed, says, “It’s sad.”
The Koreans cannot comprehend the true nature of this American tragedy: What looks like mismanagement is intentional. Our disaster is proceeding according to plan.
Totally Under Control premieres October 13 on Neon
Nina Burleigh’s latest book, The Trump Women: Part of the Deal, is out now