Nanfu Wang’s documentary In the Same Breath chronicles the events related to the COVID-19 breakout in Wuhan, China. In parallel Wang relates the events of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Her unique position as a Chinese American citizen reveals her perspective about how the outbreak similarly impacted both countries.
Brilliantly, Wang’s film shatters the assumptions about democracy “lovers” and “patriots” in the U.S. who supported the former Trump administration. Also, it slays the propagandist and tyrannical Chinese Communist Party run by forever-president Xi Jinping. The film indicts both governments for their negligent, depraved and indifferent responses to the COVID-19 pandemic early on. Those delays and refusals to warn the populace to take precautions caused high death rates in China and the U.S.
Wang begins with clips of the New Year in China, January 1, 2020. Announcements made by the Communist Party proclaimed the celebration of the country’s great progress. While she stayed in the U.S., her husband and son enjoyed the Year of the Rat with family in her home city near Wuhan. through social media posts she noted the latest events in China, and she digitally connected with her family, husband and son.
Wang picked up information posted by eight physicians about a deadly infectious disease in Wuhan. Problematically, the Chinese government proceeded with its Congress in January and expected all to enjoy these political celebrations. A highly infectious coronavirus on the horizon remained inconvenient to President Xi. Thus, they blacked out the information and silenced the doctors’ warnings.
Arrested, their phones confiscated, the doctors posted nothing else and the government punished them. Additionally, the government sent out warnings that spreading false rumors yielded negative consequences. Only positive, celebratory news applied to the New Year celebrations and political conferences. The greatness of Chinese progress, propagandized nationally, was all that was allowed.
But Wang’s city, like Wuhan, instituted a lockdown. By that point Chinese citizens were collapsing on city sidewalks. And her husband and son returned to the U.S. from China just in time. The U.S. airport accepted them with no masks or quarantine procedures, as if no deadly virus existed. Throughout her documentary, Wang reveals the timelines clearly. At the time of the lockdown, the virus had spread to overwhelm Wuhan’s hospitals. Medical staff turned away hundreds.
To her credit, Wang collects extensive and intimate footage from freelance photographers in Wuhan with whom she worked remotely. These freelancers styled their video clips based upon their own personal perspectives and political leanings. They cover the dying in hospitals and those collapsing on the streets. Additionally, they capture time-lapse photography of the clinic right across from COVID-19 ground zero, the wet market. Many sick enter the clinic complaining of coughs and breathing problems. The clinic’s doctor catches the virus and goes to the hospital. Wang shows a clip of his wife’s lament that she never said goodbye to him. Her cries echoed by others in apartment buildings across the city indicate the numbers of dead mourned.
The footage acutely tells the story of a city beleaguered and under siege. In one instance a freelance photographer captures how an ambulance driver with a sick grandmother tries hospital after hospital. None has a bed. The hospital attendants go outside to tell the family and driver she should die at home. Since no one can take care of her in the hospital, she will die unattended and alone.
Wang includes numerous personal traumas of individuals and families dying of COVID-19. In each she contrasts the poignancy of these individuals’ situations with the government’s concern only for its image.
When her son and husband returned to the U.S., they believed they had escaped the virus. Meanwhile, in late February, Trump, the CDC, Dr. Fauci and others announced the public need not worry or panic. Trump and the CDC made no national mask mandates. But Wang’s timeline reveals that within two weeks of these announcements, the hospitals in New York City looked like the ones in Wuhan. In both cities, citizens dropped dead on the sidewalks and standing on lines waiting to get to emergency rooms (i.e. at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, NY). Globally, those who paid attention didn’t understand how the great United States was allowing this to happen. Wang includes clips showing how the Communist Party created propaganda stating that democracy failed to keep its citizens safe, while socialism and the Party cared for its citizens.
Wang’s documentary reveals that both countries worked similarly in tandem. Unconscionably, the Communist Party and the Republican Party and the Trump Administration lied, misinformed, covered up, and downplayed or ignored the severity of COVID-19. They stamped treachery on two sides of the same coin, styled according to their brainwashing mantras.
And neither party accepted blame for the lies that killed. They controlled the narrative. Early on they hid the virus, instead of mitigating it. Afterward, they reconfigured the story of what happened. The Communist Party focused on how the essential workers got the country through the terrible crisis. They magnified Chinese courage via brainwashing pageantry, opera and propaganda spiels. The Party intends to wipe from citizens’ memories that thousands of deaths occurred because of Xi’s selfishness in delaying action. Wang shows how Xi downplayed the deaths though cemetery caretakers stating that 30,000 and more had died.
Some citizens are anxious to accept lies and forget the truth. For example, Wang includes a video clip of the doctor’s wife in the clinic, the one whose husband died of COVID. She credits the Communist Party for saving its citizens. Thus, the great pain of her loss dissolves. Such is the effect of the Party’s happy songs: citizens remain confident the Party protects them.
Likewise, Trump attempted to wipe himself clean of COVID-19 deaths by not even acknowledging them. However, the free press and the 2020 election wiped Trump from the narrative. The majority of Americans believe that Trump and the Republicans are responsible for a COVID-19 botch job. Daily, Americans contend with deaths from COVID-19. Nevertheless, lies that Trump created the vaccine program persist, despite the Pfizer CEO’s comments to the contrary.
At the film’s conclusion Wang posits a “what-if” scenario. If China had collaborated with the United States to fight COVID-19, would the death toll be as high? Today the pandemic continues, with variants that spread more easily and may be more deadly. United global action assuredly could have amieliorated the vast toll of misery, isolation and death. Tragically, this didn’t happen.
Look for In the Same Breath on HBO later this year.