Crafted like a cinematic thriller, Frontline’s “Outbreak” perhaps appropriately shares its title with a 1995 movie, although the situations and stakes here are all too sobering and real. A tick-tock of events surrounding the eruption of Ebola in Africa, and a cautionary tale regarding future pandemics, this hourlong documentary vividly captures the toll the disease exacted, and identifies factors that contributed to the slow global response. Deftly weaving together interviews with survivors, front-line medical personnel and experts, it’s a strong hour to kick off a run of original docs from the PBS franchise throughout May.
“Ebola was not an exception. Ebola is a precedent,” World Health Organization official Dr. Bruce Aylward observes near the end, suggesting that the information gleaned from what happened needs to be studied so as not to repeat the missteps in future crises. Those included, but weren’t limited to: overrun medical facilities; misinformation and panic; political shortsightedness; and relying on people who had little familiarity with such events to respond to the disaster.
All of this is punctuated by heartbreaking accounts from those who in some instances lost entire families, in part because they were unwittingly doing almost everything that would ensure Ebola’s transmission. Moreover, officials note that it was the people of Africa themselves doing things like changing the way they handled dead bodies, more than any help provided by the outside world, who helped turn the tide to halt the disease.
Producer-director Dan Edge traces the outbreak almost to the day, charting how children in Guinea were exposed to bats that carried Ebola in December 2013, which then spread to neighboring villages and countries. The trail includes tracking down a father whose child was likely the first person to die, then charting Ebola’s dispersal to Sierra Leone and Liberia. In one of the more devastating sequences, there’s footage from a burial involving a faith healer that apparently resulted in hundreds of those in attendance becoming infected.
“Outbreak” finds fault all over, but it doesn’t waste a lot of time pointing fingers. The larger takeaway is that people died needlessly because of the mistakes made as the outbreak began, and that there will almost surely be a future epidemic to test how well those in positions of authority have internalized the lessons that – at considerable cost – they should have learned by now.
Given how TV news tends to lurch from one “The sky is falling!” moment to the next, this sort of deep dive is a perfect example of the cool, contextual reporting that “Frontline” delivers. About the only thing one needn’t worry about in today’s media environment, sadly, is an outbreak of that.