On 8th May, Ciné-ONU Brussels, Vienna and Geneva joined forces to deliver the first online event in the thirteen-year history of United Nations Cinema. Audiences were invited to watch Janet Tobias’ powerful documentary ‘Unseen Enemy’ in the comfort of their own home; thousands accessed the film over a three-day period.
The film was followed by a panel discussion on ‘pandemics and what we’ve learned so far from COVID-19’ with the film’s director, Janet Tobias, Dr. Sylvie Briand from WHO and Todd Howland from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Over 150 people from across the world joined the discussion, including participants from Mexico, Canada, China, Switzerland, Austria, Brussels, India and the US.
‘Unseen Enemy’ is an essential exploration of the reasons why 21st-century populations are experiencing a rash of diseases that were once only outbreaks, but have now become full-blown epidemics. The documentary explores the increased risk we now face and the ways society and individuals can work together to reduce these risks. Moving across the globe, the documentary allows us to meet doctors, disease detectives and everyday people who have stepped into the horror of the Ebola, influenza and Zika epidemics and emerged deeply changed.
Janet Tobias began the debate by saying that she found it ‘stunning’ that the film’s predictions were coming true today, one by one. “Even though we were very careful what we said could happen, it is quite stunning and shocking to see it unfold.”
Todd Howland commented that governments must acknowledge that health care is a human right as well as prioritise public health and access to health care. COVID-19 has underlined the importance of investing in health care and health care professionals. He said that “people generally don’t see the right to health as a human right. We don’t see investment in health systems. Not testing until someone shows symptoms does not address other people’s right to health […] It would be very helpful if we could actually create a consciousness globally that the right to health is a right and that it is something that needs to be prioritised […] governments need to make the necessary investments in public health and access to public health.”
Dr. Sylvie Briand agreed saying, “health should be an investment for prosperity. Countries that reduced their investments in health now see that not having a comprehensive health approach can affect your economy. The two are linked, not opposed.”
Another central theme that came up throughout the discussion was trust. Trust between populations and their governments, media and scientists. In an ever-changing world, there has been a strong emergence of misinformation on social media platforms and the wider internet. Janet Tobias highlighted the importance of maintaining trust between populations and government officials: “Trust is a cascade, in a society if one part of it falls down it will have rippling effects. It is too late to build trust in a crisis. Between crises we need to work on building trust.”
Dr. Sylvie Briand noted that ‘infodemics’ of misinformation are sadly typical to pandemics because of the anxiety and fear that they fuel. She stressed that accurate and reliable information is critical to protecting people’s health and lives. She commented on how the WHO aims to build the power trust within communities: “We are not just sending out information but listening to people, finding out what they are worried about, this is the best way to build trust […] It is important to empower people, everyone is a frontline responder and has a role to play.”
Todd Howland was also concerned that “trust has become too politicised.” He concluded by underlining just how interconnected the world’s issues are: “COVID-19 has made interconnectedness clear where other epidemics haven’t […] Climate change is connected to health and economics. This brings us to the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals which are all about looking at weaknesses and creating resilience to them.”