The Trump era has led to the rise of a particularly gag-worthy slogan in centrist-lib circles: “BELIEVE IN SCIENCE.”
It’s clearly well-intended, a way to draw a line between the sharer on one side and the misinformation and magical thinking of the Trumpists on the other. Yet it does so by ironically co-opting the language of religion, and it’s based on a fundamentally naive assumption that science is or has ever been fully extricable from politics.
In The Same Breath, a documentary from Chinese-born, U.S.-resident Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation), Wang examines the way the politics of COVID have coerced the science of it, and all the ways both the Chinese and American governments have sacrificed their citizens for the sake of political expedience. For as much as both countries like to contrast themselves with the other to prove their superiority, they turn out to have a lot of similarities. She spares neither in her assessments and rather than compare and contrast which system works better, she aims to force both to admit what went wrong so that we can evolve rather than simply entrench.
During the government’s botched response to COVID-19, Anthony Fauci, immunologist and director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been hailed as essentially the avatar of “believe in science,” the opposite of Donald Trump and the latest in a line of similarly-received would-be #resistance saviors that include James Comey and Robert Mueller. That’s why it’s so jarring to see Wang repeatedly show footage of Fauci telling 60 Minutes back in March, “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.”
Wang is perhaps the ideal teller for this story, a director who knows firsthand how China handled the virus early on and who refuses to whitewash their attempts to cover it up. Yet for Wang the US version felt like deja vu. She examines the clear parallels between the way China downplayed early warnings about the virus until it was politically convenient, with the way US officials, like Surgeon General Jerome Adams, exhorted the public to “STOP BUYING MASKS” in the early days of the virus, only to have to reverse themselves just weeks later, contributing to general confusion in the process.
Even after seeing what she had in China, Wang admits to buying into what officials were saying, downplaying the virus in the US. It was just easier to believe that it wasn’t that big a deal. This all gives Wang a great deal of credibility as a storyteller. Sundance is often a place for selling easy truths to center-left liberals, like that “science is real!” and all those anti-mask protestors are just ca-raaazy looney tunes weirdos. Yet Wang boldly refuses to let Fauci off the hook. Even now, Fauci says he doesn’t regret initially telling Americans not to wear masks, whitewashing it as merely a necessary measure to keep people from hoarding masks. Even if that was the goal and he achieved it in that narrow context, he clearly lost some credibility in the process and added credence to a harmful narrative. Pained as she is to film the anti-mask protesters spreading false information, Wang doesn’t simply demonize them. She tries to get at the roots of this irrational response.
In China, the government used the virus as a parable to illustrate Chinese resilience and the superiority of their one-party system, all the while drastically downplaying the actual number of deaths, which In The Same Breath suggests are at least 10 times the official numbers. In America, Trump is gone, and Fauci has been named Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. But the virus is still here. And Wang wonders aloud, if we don’t acknowledge the mistakes that led us here, how could we ever hope to do better the next time something like this happens?