Paging Colonel Sam Daniels

February 17, 2022 10:06
Photo: Reuters/Amazon/EJI

There are few better things to do during a self-imposed retreat amidst a pandemic, than to re-watch old movies with nostalgia. So that’s exactly what I did, a process that allowed me to re-visit the classic 1995 movie Outbreak, starring none other than the one and only Dustin Hoffman, and Morgan Freeman (!).

The movie detailed a hypothetical outbreak of a deadly fever by an Ebola-esque virus named Motaba, in a remote, far-flung corner of an African jungle. Global North-infused stereotypes and questionable characrerisations of Africa aside, the movie’s opening was both gripping and terrifying. Gripping, and thus cinematically engrossing. Terrifying, in that there exist striking parallels between what is going on in the movie, and what we’re witnessing today – across the world rages a pandemic of historic proportions, with gargantuan death tolls to follow.

Colonel Sam Daniels is a remarkable man – a virologist who is more a public health practitioner and policymaker than scientist; a soldier who is more of a doctor – saving lives, as opposed to taking them. Daniels finds himself at the centre of a rapidly unravelling epidemic surrounding a small town (fortunately ‘tis a small one) in Cedar Creek, a coastal Californian village. In seeking to make sense of the pandemic, and with the help of some “kind strangers”, Daniels comes to the conclusion that the outbreak is connected with a virus that had supposedly gone extinct decades ago, and yet has resurfaced through a random zoonotic transmission event. Daniels resists against a government that views bombing the H*ll out of the town as the sole solution – after a rather tense and melodramatic standoff, all is well, the infected are cured, and the bombing is averted. Kumbaya.

Except, sadly, real life isn’t anywhere near as Kumbaya as the events in Outbreak. We’re well and truly through the twilight zone, some may say. With vaccination rates growing at a sluggish pace in Hong Kong, and elderly healthcare infamously over-stretched, we’re witnessing a perfect storm of systemic underfunding of geriatric care, a callous virus that renders COVID-19 incredibly devastating for unvaccinated elderly folks, and, above all, misleading and detrimental vaccine hesitancy – propagated by select conspiracists and egregiously misinformed media – that is propelling our elders down the road to fatality and severe damage to their health. We’re also witnessing the sprouting of outbreaks across care homes – the writing is on the wall: unless we act swiftly and promptly in isolating and treating infected tenants, we could well be seeing large volumes of infected, highly at-risk elderly patients rushed into the A/E ward of hospitals by early next week. If the existing social distancing and regulatory measures fail to work out, we’d be witnessing a troubling death toll that few could have imagined weeks prior to today.

There are some who insist that COVID-19 is merely “a flu” – those who are the least sensible would, quite literally, assert that it is the flu; others, who are more well-informed and -educated, would conclude that COVID-19 is no worse than the “flu”, even if it ain’t the flu. The trouble with both views, setting aside the scientific question, is that they ooze privilege and fundamentally do not reflect the lived reality for vulnerable populations – including the elderly who have yet to receive all three jabs, or children (toddlers and babies included), or immunocompromised individuals, or, indeed, those who are regularly exposed to the many variants of COVID-19 given the hyper-cramped nature of living environs in Hong Kong. COVID-19 could well be light and straightforward to deal with, for those who have been at least double-jabbed with effective vaccines. For others, it is no joke. And it behooves the administration to work together with civil society partners in driving up vaccination rates, especially given how dire events truly are as we speak.

Colonel Daniels believes in the power of the people. He believes that through collective, shared wisdom, we can and must overcome predicaments – ranging from the barbaric imposition of the demands that those infected in Cedar Creek must be exterminated through the to-be-detonated bomb, to the attempts by the government to cover up the spread of the virus. In truth, there is no room for concealment, and there should be even less room for patients feeling that they cannot and should not come forth, given the vast costs inflicted upon their loved ones. In Outbreak, Daniels makes an active effort to identify the “pathogen” and host to it – a capuchin monkey that finds itself into the hands of Kate, a young child. It is Kate’s mother who knowingly and proactively solicits Daniels’ help through calling him.

We need to establish a culture where patients feel comfortable with stepping forth and speaking out, and where their relatives and friends feel catered-to and cared-for – not pampered, but to be accorded with the sufficient levels of respect as to render their lives passable. This isn’t the case in a status quo where positive-testers are compelled to wait for almost a week in highly compact quarters (unlike Brits, we lack the luxury of having relatively specious homes) until they are picked up; this isn’t the case for those who queue for hours – only to be told that the mandatory tests have run out. If Sam Daniels were in charge, there’d be more transparency and openness, more clarity and consistency, and less on everyone’s plate to worry about.

But alas, we do not live in a movie. Truman might, but we don’t. We cannot find someone like Daniels, and expect him to emerge like a deus ex machina. A more plausible view, then, is that we seek to raise generations of future Colonel Daniels, through empowering competent, exuberant, and truly public/civic-minded individuals to step forth and up, at times of critical, grave danger to our government. Only structural reforms, as opposed to individual-level changes, could salvage the wreck as we see it. Reform must come swiftly – albeit with measure and on-point targettedness: beware the dangers of extremism, in and out of politics. We can only hope that by having a system that dispenses training and support many more who are potentially interested in serving our city’s public health system, we can and shall overcome the hurdles that have long afflicted our Home.

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Assistant Professor, HKU