- “Totally Under Control,” a documentary film about the US government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, premieres October 13.
- The film was filmed mostly in secret over the past five months, and blasts the Trump administration for failing to contain the pandemic.
- Here are nine key takeaways from the film.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On October 1, the directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger finished their coronavirus documentary, the first major film about the pandemic to be released in the US.
The next day, President Donald Trump announced he had the virus. The trailer for the film was also released; it’s been viewed more than 6 million times. That weekend, more and more officials within Trump’s orbit tested positive for COVID-19.
The timing of Trump’s illness is a remarkable coincidence: The film is set to premiere on October 13. (It comes to Hulu on October 20.)
Made in relative secrecy over the past five months, “Totally Under Control” — a reference to Trump’s claim early this year that the coronavirus outbreak was under control — is all about the federal government’s woeful failure to slow the coronavirus’ spread through the US.
“While the current administration makes its claims for a job well done, the fact is that the US response to COVID-19 is one of the worst, with 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of the deaths,” Neon, the film’s distributor, said in a statement to IndieWire last month.
Neon added: “Had the federal government done its job properly — by following clear guidelines in place based on past pandemics — most of the death and destruction could have been avoided.”
Business Insider viewed the film ahead of its release. Here are the nine biggest takeaways.
In 2019, the US government simulated a pandemic with ‘eerie similarities’ to the coronavirus
Dubbed “Crimson Contagion,” the scenario involved a highly lethal influenza virus that originated in China and spread throughout the world. The Department of Health and Human Services conducted the scenario in 2019, from January to about August.
HHS detailed its results in October 2019, in a draft report that The New York Times later published. It found that the government lacked funding for personal protective equipment and antiviral drugs, that federal agencies were conflicted about how to manage the response, and that state governments received confusing messages about lockdowns and school closures.
In short, the report read like a preview of the year to come.
The Trump administration ignored advice on how to deal with a pandemic
In 2016, Beth Cameron, a senior director for global health security and biodefense at the National Security Council, and her team put together a 69-page briefing on how the federal government could coordinate its response to a pandemic.
The report “intended to allow the people in the White House to ask questions,” Cameron said in the film. “What should we do? And also, what do we need to do to get ahead, so that we’re not constantly reacting?”
The Trump administration did not use the playbook, Cameron said. And in 2018, the national security adviser John Bolton disbanded the Global Health Security and Biodefense team.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that the Obama administration “did not leave to this administration any kind of game plan for something like this.” He later admitted he was wrong.
The US’s first coronavirus tests were faulty — and the CDC didn’t address the issue for 3 weeks
The original tests, which were shipped to laboratories on February 5, contained a faulty assay, meant to measure the presence of a virus. Labs around the country notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the problem, but the agency didn’t address it until February 28.
In the meantime, universities and labs couldn’t develop their own tests quickly, because they would have had to slog through weeks of Food and Drug Administration bureaucracy. So in February, the US conducted next to no tests of its residents.
“It was as if we were flying blind, and we knew it. And frankly, there was nothing we could do except wait,” Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said in the film.
The White House’s early testing strategy ‘was designed to miss community transmission’
Testing shortages in the US persisted for months, but they were worst at the start of the pandemic. At the end of February, the US was testing fewer than 100 people a day, while in South Korea officials were testing 10,000 people a day.
To target the limited tests, the CDC restricted testing to people who’d traveled from China or had contact with people who’d tested positive. But this strategy assumed the US didn’t already have “community transmission,” or when a virus spreads through a community without a known source.
By late February, though, the virus had already spread to half the states. By focusing only on people with known links to China, the CDC testing strategy “was designed to miss community transmission,” Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious-disease specialist and critical-care physician at the University of Virginia, said in the film.
Trump officials sold most of the US’s protective masks to China in February
In February, the Trump administration created the “CS China COVID Procurement Service” partly to encourage American producers like 3M to sell their inventories of N95 masks to China.
One month later, when American hospitals desperately needed N95s, they were forced to import them — and pay up to 10 times what American producers would have charged, according to the documentary.
Mike Pence’s coronavirus task force had more than twice as many industry reps and politicians as scientists
As of March, just six of the 20 members of Vice President Mike Pence’s coronavirus task force had scientific expertise. One of them was Ben Carson, who’s a surgeon by training but has little public-health expertise.
Other members of the task force included Joseph Grogan, a former lobbyist for Gilead Sciences (the company behind remdesivir); Stephen Biegun, a former lobbyist for Ford who served as Sarah Palin’s foreign-policy adviser in 2008; and Ken Cuccinelli, a climate-change skeptic who was formerly the attorney general of Virginia.
Jared Kushner’s PPE task force consisted largely of unpaid 20-something volunteers working 7 days a week
When 26-year-old Max Kennedy Jr. volunteered to be on Jared Kushner’s coronavirus task force, he joined a group of other young, unpaid volunteers in a windowless conference room in the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The walls were covered in TVs that blared Fox News 24/7.
Kennedy and the other volunteers — none of whom had experience in supply chains — were put to work trying to buy PPE from Chinese factories.
“We thought we’d be auxiliary support,” Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, said in the film. “Instead, we were the team.”
He said he and other volunteers used their personal email accounts to communicate with the factories.
Kennedy quit the task force in April. That month, he sent an anonymous complaint to Congress detailing the task force’s incompetency.
“In my time on the task force,” he said, “our team did not directly purchase a single mask.”
Kushner told California Gov. Gavin Newsom he had to publicly thank Trump to get testing supplies
In April, when Newsom asked the White House for 350,000 testing swabs, Kushner told his advisers that the federal help would hinge on Newsom doing him a favor.
Newsom would have to call Trump, and he would have to thank him publicly. Newsom apparently did the former, and on April 22, he publicly thanked the president for a “substantial increase” in testing supplies.
Newsom has denied this version of events, saying that “no one told me to express” gratitude.
State and federal governments bid against one another, eBay-style, for ventilators and PPE
“It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said of the situation in March, when severe equipment shortages forced states to bid against one another for the right to purchase critical supplies like ventilators and masks from private companies.
The bidding war drove up the price of those supplies, increasing profits for foreign manufacturers at taxpayers’ expense. FEMA also outbid many states, driving Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to express frustration during a teleconference with Trump on March 19.
“I got a feeling that if somebody has a chance to sell to you or has a chance to me, I’m going to lose every one of those,” Baker said.
“Well, we do like you going out and seeing what you can get, if you can get it faster,” Trump said. “And price is always a component of that also. And maybe that’s why you lost to the feds.”