TRAINSPOTTER

Totally Under Control — how the United States (and South Africa) screwed up the coronavirus response

By Richard Poplak 14 October 2020

US President Donald Trump. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds / Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Totally Under Control, a new film co-directed by documentarian Alex Gibney, lays bare the insanity at the heart of the Donald Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. By extension, it proves that the modern technocratic state has crumbled under the weight of neoliberal austerity, corruption and partisan warfare. The corollaries with South Africa are as clear as they are terrifying.

Local is drekker

Now that the South African lockdown has been reduced to a shouting match between the left and the right on Twitter, there is one thing we can all agree on: in a country stuffed with research universities and virologists, one that (narrowly) survived the HIV/Aids plague, there was no ability to form a coherent or humane response to a pandemic long predicted by the experts. 

The “science-based approach” adopted by the South African authorities was quickly mitigated by a Soviet-style National Coronavirus Command Council that subverted democratic processes in order to deliver a period of astonishing authoritarianism. Parliament was subordinated to this newly unaccountable politburo and, like a high-end sex club catering for an elderly clientele with some seriously fucked up kinks, each member was allowed to indulge in his or her peccadilloes. 

Who is in charge – the NCCC or the Cabinet? Ramaphosa unveils the blurring of democratic practice at the highest level 

No smoking. No drinking. No hot food. No loitering outside one’s own shack. 

What’s more, the lockdown proved an opportunity for the ANC to toy with a command and control economy, and there were attempts to embed a “transformative” agenda into the emergency regulations. Predictably, and despite having had 25 years to create a more equitable sociopolitical environment, the ANC proved as awful at shock doctrine as it has been at regular governance. 

But it didn’t require the specialised prescience of scientists or economists to understand that if you lock everything down for weeks on end, people will go hungry. And go hungry they did. Instead of marshalling state resources for service delivery, the government militarised the lockdown, employing violence to keep people caged in their homes and communities. The extrajudicial murder of Collins Khosa by the SANDF was the most high-profile example of The State v The People, and added to the ANC’s sterling record of killing its own citizens in service of its whims. But incidents of police brutality were so numerous that they quickly became 2020’s grim screen saver. 

South Africa needed a lockdown to save lives. We did not, however, need the lockdown we got. We required something gentler, more progressive, more human. The cruelty was underscored by the staggering corruption of the PPE procurement process, which resulted in at least 10% of the R50-billion disbursement being squandered by connected cadres. Rightly or wrongly, South Africans will remember Covid-19 for the orgy of thieving and greed that has studded Johannesburg and Cape Town with high-end vehicles and proud new mansion owners.

Worse, like so many countries, we’ve learnt something essential about ourselves. The postmodern capitalist technocratic state is a chimera. In its endless dedication to fake parsimony, it is always broke, and has no scope to deal with emergencies. On this, there was an agreement between the right-wing death cultists, who wanted to throw our grannies into a braai pit as a sacrifice to The Almighty ZAR, and the ANC, which wanted our cities to resemble Pyongyang during a séance: there was no money for anything other than an obscenely small social grant and some bank loans that everyone understood would never be issued.

Government’s Covid-19 loan guarantee scheme still stuck on the runway

Make America Grate Again 

But say this for the ruling cabal in South Africa: at least they believed in the virus. Never once did they submit to the voodoo chanting that emerged from the United States, Madagascar or other “shit-hole” countries — herbal concoctions, lightbulb suppositories, household cleaning product infusions. 

Which brings us neatly to the matter at hand: the launch of a new feature documentary detailing the American response to the crisis, and one that is devastating in its measured indictment of the Trump administration’s response. Made on an astonishingly tight timeline, and having dropped on Tuesday for South African audiences on iTunes, Totally Under Control is precision-designed to enter the 2020 US presidential election maelstrom, and perhaps influence the outcome in favour of Sleepy Joe Biden and his Democrats.

I’m not sure whether Americans need another forensic accounting of the administration’s idiocy, greed and incompetence, and I’m not sure this one will influence anyone to swing their vote sanity-wards. But it’s a wake-up call for those who think political stupidity is a reversible condition. The film is directed by prolific documentary don Alex Gibney, along with award-winning filmmakers Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan. All three are experienced storytellers, and it shows: perhaps the most impressive thing about Totally Under Control is its narrative clarity. The film is a ticking time bomb that tracks a linear timeline, kicking off in early 2020 as the US administration grapples with several self-made crises: the drone strike against Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani; the impeachment “hoax” being conducted in Congress; the Chinese-American trade war. 

Disrupting this baseline Trumpian chaos, news emerges of a dangerous, novel coronavirus working its way through the supercity of Wuhan. If the reports coming out of China were correct, the newly designated SARS-CoV-2 would be the third zoonotically transferred coronavirus of the century after SARS and MERS, and the fifth major global public health crisis after H1N1 and Ebola are included. 

In other words, and despite the manic overuse of the word, there was nothing at all “unprecedented” about what was unfolding in China — it was a crisis that scientists around the globe had been anticipating and preparing for since at least 2003.

Nevertheless, the Chinese buried critical parts of the story (the film goes far too easy on the Chinese), the World Health Organisation laundered their flimflam (again, not a peep of criticism) and we are treated to found footage of Americans American-ing — a bro-dude licking items on a supermarket shelf; a Karen deliberately coughing into the camera of a smartphone; folks in MAGA hats throwing punches during a “debate” over the utility of face masks. 

“At a moment of crisis, the world’s most powerful nation didn’t rise to the occasion, it descended into division and chaos,” says Gibney. “Why?”

The short answer is that since Richard Nixon, Republicans have attempted to take over the federal government in order to destroy the federal government. The Trump regime’s Covid-19 non-response was the logical culmination of Ronald Reagan’s insistence that, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” In this view, governance should be deferred to the states or, better yet, individual Americans, who are left to take care of their own dang business. 

Here’s how this programme manifested during the Covid-19 crisis. On 3 January, a meeting was held between the Chinese infectious disease authorities and representatives from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where the seriousness of this new threat was made clear. It was equally apparent that the Americans didn’t have the capacity to absorb this kind of data: information flows from the administration, not into the administration. 

Inconvenient news was simply binned, and the coronavirus was ignored — it didn’t suit Trump’s fuck-the-Chinese-the-stock-market-is-booming election-year narrative. 

Manufacturing dissent (but not PPE)

By contrast, Totally Under Control demonstrates how the authorities in South Korea absorbed these early details. (The film functions nicely as a comparative study between the American response and that of the South Koreans, who famously managed to keep the virus in check and not murder hundreds of thousands of people with abject negligence or an inhumane lockdown.)

In Seoul, the politicians got out of the way and left the process to the professionals. Having learnt from MERS in 2015 (and SARS earlier in the century), they had developed an infectious disease playbook, and followed it. They aggressively produced test kits and a law was passed on 27 January that led to a national testing programme. There was no useless “discourse” about freedom-hating face masks and, while there was certainly pushback against social distancing, there was no hard shutdown. 

Jump-cut to America, and the testimony of Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. He explains how the Americans had their own advanced playbook, a war game called Crimson Contagion, produced by the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). And yet, it might as well have been run through a shredding machine. (Bright, who would later file a whistle-blower report, was ousted from his position and publicly repudiated by the Orange Monster.)

Enter Bob Kadlec, who was appointed ASPR by Trump in order to destroy the agency he was ostensibly running. Kadlec’s principal contribution to the saga was to ignore repeated warnings about the shortages of viable N95 masks in the federal government’s near-useless stockpile. The leadership hole was deepened by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, a conservative former Big Pharma lobbyist who apparently understood the threat, but was unable or unwilling to convey its severity to his boss. The magical thinking was so extreme that, during the Davos World Economic Forum in late January, Trump uttered his own now infamous “Mission Accomplished” laugh line: “We have it totally under control,” he promised CNBC’s Joe Kernan

And yet back at home, the CDC was tripping over its own feet. The agency was led by another classic Trump Orc, Dr Robert R Redfield, who during the Aids crisis preached abstinence and still maintained ties with anti-gay evangelicals at the time of his appointment. (In many respects, the film proves that the alliance forged between C-grade billionaires and fundamentalist Christians has resulted in a Vatican-style mafia theocracy that, surprise surprise, doesn’t work very well.) As far as the Trumpians were concerned, the CDC was the “deep state”. As far as scientists within the CDC were concerned, the Trump administration was the wacky fringe, and email chains issuing the necessary warnings were saved for posterity, but went no further.

On 29 January, a White House Coronavirus Task Force was created, led by Azar, and stuffed with mostly loyalists, evangelicals or lunatics. Dr Anthony Fauci, the now legendary director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was one of the few exceptions. (He is not interviewed for the film, which is no bad thing, given his media oversaturation.) Despite the simmering chaos, by 4 February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved an emergency test kit produced by the CDC. But labs identified problems with the test, which was then recalled. This was the inflection point, resulting in the “lost month” in which neither testing nor tracking and tracing were put into effect, and the plague colonised America. 

As Trump swanned about India with fellow autocrat Narendra Modi, on 25 February Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, went rogue during a news briefing. Her frank testimony, which sketched out the looming disaster in stark language, tanked the market, spooked the country and pissed off Trump enormously. He shunted Vice-President Mike Pence to the head of the White House task force, appointing as spokesperson Dr Deborah Birx, who became famous for nearly prolapsing live on TV when Trump suggested injecting disinfectants as a home cure.

Still, there were only 100 or so tests a day being conducted in a country with a population of 328 million. Inevitably, when testing commenced in earnest, positive cases spiked. Just as inevitably, Americans started dying. Mostly, it was frontline workers, the human cogs in the gig economy that couldn’t work from home or afford to self-isolate: Black people, poor people, old people, forgotten people. But if the government just backed off on the testing, as Trump reasoned with impeccable logic, then the caseload wouldn’t grow, the economy could be reopened and the crisis would — poof! — disappear. 

As with every Trump story, at some point in the tale the son-in-law must enter the picture. Jared Kushner, an inhuman concoction developed in the bowels of a zombie Barbie and Ken factory, was put in charge of the federal government’s PPE procurement policy. (Because of the PPE shortfall, the CDC recommended the American public refrain from using face masks, and healthcare workers in the richest country in the history of the world were wearing garbage bags to work.)

This is perhaps the film’s most jaw-dropping passage: we learn that a group of barely legal volunteers was tasked with securing PPE for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). As the New York Times noted, “The volunteers, foot soldiers in the Trump administration’s new supply-chain task force, had little to no experience with government procurement procedures or medical equipment. But as part of Mr Kushner’s government-wide push to secure protective gear for the nation’s doctors and nurses, the volunteers were put in charge of sifting through more than a thousand incoming leads, and told to pass only the best ones on for further review by Fema officials.” Transactions were conducted with suitcases full of cash, Iraq war-style. 

That’s some advanced failed state shit right there. But it got worse. States were left to try to secure their own hard-won PPE. They had to compete among themselves, as well as with the federal government and the private sector, in order to buy masks and ventilators for their hospitals. Up went the prices, which may have been the point. Kushner’s team appointed five private healthcare companies seemingly at random to distribute the equipment, and price-gouging ended up as one of the major side-effects of the pandemic. 

This amateur-hour nonsense is echoed by the whole hydroxychloroquine saga, a miracle cure pushed by Dr Vladimir Zelenko, a right-wing Hasidic crank who was offering a cocktail of the untested drug at his small-town practice. After Trump endorsed Zelenko and his magic muti, the FDA suddenly found its fleetness and tried to approve the drug for the mainstream market. Another state organ was bullied into obedience by the president. 

Brand (U)SA

“This film wasn’t really about politics for us, it was about competence,” Gibney has said. But politics, which was once the beautifully human art of organising societies around a set of ideas, is now understood as its opposite: a partisan argument between “right” and “left”, which allows no scope for resolution, plenty of space for corruption and thus no room for competence. Totally Under Control proves this in pornographic detail. 

Will there be nothing left of America after the plague, which has now killed more than 215,000 people and shows no sign of abating? Trump himself has been taken ill, as have dozens of people connected to the administration. Senator Mitch McConnell, perhaps Trump’s most important enabler, has apparently refused to go to the White House because there are no protocols in place. 

Masks are now a primary identifier of political affiliation — we are treated to archive footage of maskless Trump at a PPE factory, with Guns N’ Roses’ Live And Let Die blaring in the background. The administration has transcended parody and entered a new realm of meta, where the jokes write themselves and satire becomes sober reportage. Perhaps this is why Totally Under Control refuses to submit to hysteria and plays it funereal. Why bother with comedy when the bad guys are in on the joke?

There will almost certainly be more comprehensive treatments of the crisis, but as a first draft of history, it couldn’t be more damning. It shows an empire in severe decline, a system collapsing under the weight of its greed, expediency and cruelty. Watch it — it’s important. 

But as you do, it’s worth considering the corollaries between South Africa and the United States, two staggeringly unequal, staggeringly corrupt hypercapitalist societies with long histories of racial and class warfare. The former indulged its impulse to overgovern, the latter to undergovern. The South African approach without question resulted in fewer Covid-19 deaths per capita. But the social costs of the Brand SA lockdown will echo through the decades, having accelerated the post-work informal Mad Max nature of our “economy”, with no alternatives in place. 

Meanwhile, the United States has buried nearly a quarter of a million people, and counting. Its economy is hardly in ruins, but it too has become more unequal and more obviously dystopian, while its political and racial ructions have spilt over into simmering street violence. The vaccine will be found, the virus will be tamed, but the damage will, once again, last for generations.

At the heart of both approaches were combating non-ideologies — one authoritarian, one laissez-faire — that were backed by a connected political elite that dealt themselves into the action, and made a killing. Literally. DM

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All Comments 24

    • This malignant and wholly incompetent individual ought to self-isolate, together with her former husband, thus limiting her (and his) ability to inflict any further harm on the country.

  • Great article. On the one side we have a braindead Republican Party probably about to lose the US elections to a rather better but slightly wishy-washy Democratic Party. I just hope that the Democrats will stabilise the world order somewhat but it will not stop the Chinese colonial expansion. As in the South China Sea. In South Africa we have a very obviously incompetent, racist and out of date left-wing wannabe ANC which could lose their elections IF the voting public only stood behind a strong democratic opposition. Which The Press take every opportunity to trash. By “The Press” I include on-line publications. Come on people, support the democratic opposition!

    • As you state ‘If the voting public’ , that is the problem .
      At best , will take 5-10 years for them to wake up and change !
      Another 10 years of the ANC ? OMW !
      And little to no plan from the DA to change that .
      Yet there is a simple and easy way to bring the ANC/Govt to order .
      The ‘State ‘ is funded by taxpayers , they are ’employees ‘ of the taxpayers .
      Some have mooted a ‘tax revolt’ , easier said than done !
      Why not have a ‘national rates revolt’ ?
      Cannot harm service delivery , as it is pretty much non existent !
      Stop putting money in the trough !
      First month , that might pass , second month , third month ?
      Ooops , no pay ! No sympathy !
      Any one else with a plan ?

  • I’m not sure, the CDC has reported that only 6% of those quarter of a million people in the US actually died of Corona alone. That makes about 15 000; not really the Spanish Flu. Why all the resources going into a vaccine? Even the WHO has now come out and said lockdowns are not the correct response. I’m pretty sure they were pro them in January, have they noticed the tide turning?

    • This is a blatant misrepresentation of facts, Mr. Hamilton. It is trite that people with comorbidities are more susceptible to the disease and experience more severe outcomes. To claim that an obese person did not die of the virus when infected thereby is akin to arguing an obese person didn’t die of a gunshot wound to the heart because he was overweight. Further, excess global death statistics actually indicate that Covid-related deaths have been underreported.

      Another distortion is the argument that the WHO “has said lockdowns are not the correct response”. What Dr David Nabarro of the organization actually stated was that lockdowns should be considered as just one measure among many to control the virus, with an aim to give countries “breathing space” to roll out other, better anti-Covid matters.

      Covid-19 is easily as deadly as The Spanish Flu you compare it to, it’s just our advanced medical knowledge and technology that has kept the global death rate to a “mere” million or so souls to date. But incompetent politicians and the continual (often Trumpian) perversion of facts will lead to that number increasing until such time as there is a safe, effective and accessible vaccine – and with how politicised that issue has become, who knows if people will even have the trust to utilise it?

  • I have to ask , is the writer a supporter of the ‘One China ‘ policy ?
    there is only one country that had a credible response to the CCP flu !
    Taiwan !
    Yet it does not even rate a mention !
    Why ?
    No cases since April and only 7 deaths .
    It was Taiwan that asked the WHO for more info, declined . As they are ‘paid’ by the CCP !
    No lockdown , no shutdown !
    What they did was close their borders from virus hotspots !
    Then really close entry !
    Unlike RSA , who was welcoming planes from Italy , then the country most affected .
    So much for CR saying our borders are secure !
    Cannot even build a decent fence on the border !
    Yes , there were no masks available in SA from mid February , from what I was told by staff at Clicks , all bought up by the local Chinese . What did they know and we did not ? Apparently SA was not an isolated case !
    Had SA recognised Taiwan , we could have got masks from them , delivered and for free !
    No strings ! Eswatini ( Swaziland) got !
    The writer praises S Korea , which did fine in the beginning , then lapsed .
    No mention of Vietnam either !
    The WHO is as much to blame as anyone .
    ‘Please visit China , do not isolate it ‘
    Help the virus spread they meant .
    I thought you were meant to ‘isolate ‘ such things ?
    China is still doing it today !
    Had the world stopped flights from hi risk countries , we would not be in the situation we are today !
    I arrived in Singapore , the day the virus arrived in SA , March 5th !
    There were reassuring signs stating ‘No entry for flights from Iran , Macau , China and Italy ! ‘
    By the 14th March , not a face mask /sanitiser or tracking questionnaire in sight at OR Thambo !
    CR and his cronies are the ones to blame , they lied to us , again !

  • I fear Poplak’s tone -I know this is his brand- makes it difficult/impossible for readers who hold dissenting views to engage & think critically. What is the point of journalism if it only serves to confirm the views on one side?

    I am desperate for less animosity so that consensus, where it does not yet exist, might be found.

    I agree with all of his points though.

    Regarding the NCCC and what happened in SA during the lockdown: This is something we must never forget. They should be held to account!

    • “… one side?”
      Of what?
      In this post-truth milieu everything is considered “a debate.”
      But it is not. Poplak as usual has nailed it.

  • I love Poplak’s writing and I enjoy the fact that I always learn at least one new word. I also like the swearing – I think it adds a ‘street’ edginess to his articles. But no, no – he partook of the Karen meme – how can I ever forgive this name bigotry? #KLM.

  • Great article until the last paragraphs where Poplak states… The vaccine will be found, the virus will be tamed… this is the most sinister narrative that finds its way into all covid conversations. The war on the sovereign right to bodily integrity will be the legacy of Covid, economies will recover, or morph or whatever.. human rights will be violated while we are looking at the balance sheet.

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