Did COVID-19 secretly unite (rather than divide) us? A new documentary argues just that

Did COVID-19 secretly unite (rather than divide) us? A new documentary argues just that
woman in brown coat wearing black sunglasses

Living through history is not always pleasant. Generations from now, historians will study how humanity coped with the pandemic in the 2020s. That's because the COVID-19 pandemic has been an inflection point in history, an event that transforms the world. It is easy to overlook this as we're caught in its throes; yet considering that more global tragedies related to issues like climate change and income inequality are in the offing, that analysis will offer more than merely academic insights.

There are real individual human beings making this history, men and women from all walks of life who view themselves not as tiles in a mosaic but as ordinary people trying to get through the day during unprecedented times. Netflix is sharing their stories in its new documentary, "Convergence: Courage in a Crisis," and does so by showcasing similar experiences from across the globe from humans of all walks of life. There is the heroism of a Syrian refugee and volunteer hospital cleaner, Hassan Akkad (also a co-director), who fights to end a terrible injustice, and of a Miami doctor desperate to protect Florida's homeless community. When a volunteer in Wuhan helps medical workers visit the city where the outbreak all began, there is a visceral sense of tension from anyone who can imagine the stress of such a trip.

To better understand this film — and its surprising argument that humans converged in this crisis — Salon spoke with Orlando von Einsiedel, an Oscar-winning documentarian (for his short "The White Helmets") who led a group of ten co-directors to bring these stories to the screen. "Convergence: Courage in a Crisis" premieres on Netflix on Tuesday, Oct. 12. This interview has been edited for length, clarity and context.

What broader lessons did you learn from looking at how these different cultures have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the guiding principles that humanity can take away from this experience?

When we began, this started off as a film about individuals around the globe responding to the pandemic. I think the film morphed into a story about individuals around the world, responding to the flaws in society that the pandemic has massively exposed and then civil society rising up to plug those holes. I think that's one of the things we've seen around the world in a number of places. What are those flaws — injustices, social inequities, big flaws like racial injustice? I think those are the things that COVID specifically has really shown us. It's been like a magnifier.

Can you give specific examples that really struck you while you were making the film?

In Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, there is a community where water is shut off at eight o'clock and the protagonist whose story we follow in the film talks about how the government has everyone need to wash their hands and has those sorts of health measures in place. And yet the water for that community is turned off. I think that shows enormous inequality in Brazil, for instance.

I suppose one of the major ethical questions that exists right now in terms of COVID-19 discourse is, to what extent should we respect cultural differences versus to what extent should we insist on people following public health precautions? In the United States, as I'm sure you know, there are many people who oppose mask mandates, vaccine mandates, social distancing, and other public health measures. Does the documentary provide any insights in terms of how we should approach those questions?

Actually we decided from the beginning to not focus on the everyday politics of COVID. We tried to tell a human story. Yes, we focused on countries where COVID has been politicized, because I think that has shown those have been the places where we've seen the pandemic play out at its worst, and it's been the hardest to control it. But the film doesn't sort of delve into the every day politics of COVID in that regard.

Where does it draw the line in terms of the kinds of political issues it does explore and the ones that it does not?

Ultimately we follow the stories of our protagonist at the hands of the film. So it's, where do their stories take us? If the story then explores inequities in Miami to do with unhoused individuals, or inequities in a Brazilian favela, or injustices against migrant workers, then we explore those issues.

Now I'm wondering, in terms of the broader lessons from your film, people like me who think about things in historical terms wonder what will the long-term impact be of the COVID-19 pandemic on humanity? Because something that literally affects every human being alive in such a profound way is going to have permanent consequences. Have you given thought to this question? And if so, what kinds of answers do you think your documentary provides?

One of the things I hope the documentary does is highlight the commonalities between us. I'd like to think that the film focuses on some of the things which pull us together. I believe that it's global events like this, that show that we are all living on a small planet, that can help us in the future tackle these big global issues.

Do you think this is a lesson that humanity is learning? Or is it the lesson that we should learn?

Well, it's definitely a lesson that we should learn. I think COVID has highlighted that enormously, whether or not the leaders in place at the moment are the best equipped to learn from those lessons. I don't know. But I think one of the effects was just to show just how connected we all are, and how to solve these global crises we have to work together.

Your documentary is appealing because it covers the experiences of people from all over the world responding to this same event... You said that the lesson is that we need to view ourselves as a global community in terms of practical efforts. What would that look like? Whether in the United States or Brazil or China or Russia, or anywhere else? What would it look like for real world political change to occur that would better serve everyone, whether it's through COVID-19 or climate change or any other crisis?

I guess the very simple answer to that is working together. [WHO Executive Director- General] Dr. Tedros Adhanom in the film very much says that. This is what he's been very much tasked with doing, is trying to put people together to work together in global solidarity. I think that is key. How can you just solve COVID in one country? You can't. This is a global problem. Everybody has to pull together. And to your point, how do you solve climate change? It involves everybody working together. There's no point just one country working on this decision in isolation. The world doesn't work like that. We are all interconnected and therefore we have to work together on this stuff. As I said earlier, I think COVID can be a real lesson to all of us, but to solve these problems, we have to work together.

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