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Health

Fighting the Next Outbreak: 'Unseen Enemy' Director Janet Tobias on the Danger of Pandemics

Unseen Enemy/ Christopher Beauchamp

How do you prepare to fight against an invisible enemy, one that you know is going to strike soon, but you don't know where, when, or what havoc it might wreak?

Those are the pressing questions permeating the new film a documentary about the very real threat of the next pandemic outbreak facing the world. 

Janet Tobias, the director of Unseen Enemy, a documentary presented by Johnson & Johnson, traveled the world speaking with health experts and victims of past pandemics to discover that we are overdue for our next encounter with a deadly infectious disease, and it will likely spread from animals to humans at some point in the next 10 or 15 years.

Will the world be ready to handle it?

Tobias spoke with Global Citizen about what she learned in her work making Unseen Enemy, which premieres this Friday, World Health Day, on CNN at 10 p.m. EST. 

IMG_0597..jpgJanet Tobias


1. You have a diverse background in film, media and health/science. What inspired you to make this film / how did you land on the topic of infectious diseases?

I was really interested in figuring out if in our rapidly globalizing world we were more vulnerable to outbreaks becoming epidemics and pandemics. So that question turned into a film. I think films start with a story you love and want to tell, or a question you want to explore. And "Unseen Enemy" started with a question.

2. How did your vision for the film change throughout the four years of production? What surprised you along the way?

When we started, I planned to look at past epidemics like SARS, influenza etc. and then at what could happen in the future. Then the West African Ebola epidemic happened and we started filming the present. Then the Zika epidemic happened. And this film become much more about the present than we ever imagined.

A couple of things surprised me. I think I didn’t understand how much epidemics tear apart the social fabric – they not only kill, they also destroy economies, because in the middle of an epidemic people don’t go to work, they don’t travel, they don’t go out. And epidemics start destroying cultures through fear and panic. 

3. We hardly ever used to talk about pandemics, so why are pandemics such a big deal right now? Who is at threat? 

In a globalized world we all are at risk, because what happens on the frontline in Liberia affects people in Europe and North America. We live in a connected world, and while that brings great things — shared knowledge, the chance to travel, cheaper goods etc., it also means microbes move more freely.

4. What were the successes and failures of the Ebola and Zika outbreaks? How close were they to becoming pandemic compared to historic disease outbreaks?

There were unfortunately a lot of failures in the Ebola epidemic. Ebola should have stayed an outbreak. It should not have become an epidemic. We didn’t detect the disease early enough, the health systems on the ground were completely unprepared, and the global community took way too long to respond. If we hadn’t responded when we did, Ebola would have become a pandemic.

Zika also caught us by surprise. No one thought that a virus first identified in the 1940s in Uganda would travel halfway across the world —first to the South Pacific and then to South America, and now to North America. And no one knew, and we are still trying to understand, why this virus that hadn’t been thought of as particularly dangerous would in Brazil produce such terrible birth defects. Zika is essentially a pandemic as it affects so many countries and continents. And with global warming it could affect even more, because the mosquitoes will be able to move further north as the globe warms up.

5. What is being done to reduce the world's chances of a pandemic and what is the role of government leaders in addressing the threat?

Government leaders play a key role in addressing pandemics. We need the leaders of the G20 to commit to pandemic preparedness. We need early detection/warning systems in place so we can find outbreaks faster. We need improved coordination among countries, and we need to have rapid response teams ready to go to the frontlines. We also need our leaders to support research so we have the vaccines, drugs and diagnostics we need to fight epidemics. And that research needs to be done before the epidemic. And finally we need to make sure that around the world we have strong health systems in place that can deal with outbreaks and epidemics. One hole in the fence, one weak length in the chain, makes all of us vulnerable.

6. What can Global Citizens do?

Global Citizens can do a lot. We need to ask our leaders to commit to pandemic preparedness. If the public doesn’t think it is important then why will politicians? All of us can also be the person who helps stop contagion by not going to work or school sick, by getting the vaccines that are right for us, and by staying informed. Information is power. I now think about the person next to me on the subway or bus. I could not even know I am sick yet and give someone the flu. I could cause a child going to chemotherapy or someone older or just someone genetically vulnerable for some reason that we don’t understand to be hospitalized or even kill them. I now think it isn’t just about me, it is about the people around me, about my community.