One of the most rewarding aspects of attending the twice-yearly Television Critics Association tours is the opportunity to learn new things, even if they don’t necessarily apply to a corporate issue that a reporter might be writing about or a program that a critic might be planning to review. In general, PBS and the networks of National Geographic and Discovery lead the way in educating us on a broad variety of real-world topics ranging from art, science and technology to history, literature and the mysteries of the universe. I have often referred to attending such sessions as returning to school for a few weeks every year.
The seven virtual National Geographic panels that were presented on Monday to TCA members certainly upheld that tradition, ranging from Ron Howard and others discussing the powerful documentary Rebuilding Paradise(about the aftermath efforts to reconstruct the California town that was completely destroyed in an historic 2018 fire), to Photo Ark, a two-part special chronicling the efforts of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore to document as many species as possible (more than 10,000 to date) to Trafficked, a documentary that bravely explores global smuggling networks and black markets.
And then there was the panel for the timely documentary Virus Hunters, set to premiere November 1 on National Geographic Channel and produced in partnership with ABC News and Lincoln Square Productions. It was the most educational panel in a presentation filled with very smart content.
Given the conditions under which we have all been living since March, and must continue to navigate for the foreseeable future, this one was personal. It was not unlike sitting through panels over the years about terrorism, gun violence and climate change, particularly after significant real-life events that brought these issues to the foreground just before a TCA tour. They never fail to inform, illuminate and inspire, while also reminding us that there is no better medium than television to educate and enlighten the masses.
Three of the panelists during the Virus Hunterssession -- Nat Geo emerging explorer and epidemiologist Chris Golden, ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman and bat scientist and field scientist at EcoHealth Alliance Kendra Phelps -- came to us live from a cave full of bats located close to the Mediterranean Coast, south of Turkey. They were joined by Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection founder and wildlife veterinarian Jim Desmond, who was in Liberia, and Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic magazine and editorial director of National Geographic Partners.
Speaking of the current pandemic, Goldberg said, “I've been a journalist for 40 years [and] covered lots of different, huge events -- but I must say that I've never really seen anything like this. To watch this virus make its way across the planet -- to watch it upending everybody’s life in one way or another – and to know that we're not even halfway close to solving this and there could be worse days to come is really frightening. What we must do as journalists is to look for solution-based journalism, science-based journalism and to really push people to lean into that science and not get caught up in the politics of it.
“It [is] a real tragedy that this has become politicized in the United States and has really hurt our response,” she continued. “What I think we at National Geographic can do across our immediate digital platforms, our television platforms and our print platforms is just to keep talking about the science because that is going to be how we get out of this. It’s an incredible challenge as a storyteller, but I also think we have an incredible opportunity to shine a light and to make a difference.”
“I've been to a number of countries throughout the pandemic that have had wildly diverging responses and wildly diverging outcomes, everywhere from Brazil to Greece to Sweden and Italy multiple times,” Longman explained. “The thing that comes up time and time again is the idea that this was a freak event, that there was no possible way to plan, that somehow this is all that politicians could possibly do, when actually people like Kendra and Jim and others around the world have been ringing the bell on this issue for quite some time! That is what I have found frustrating in covering it. Also, the misconception that viruses are this kind of foreign exotic, ‘Asian issue.’ We've heard it called the Wuhan Flu and other things. This is the not the case. These are things that could spring up everywhere. That is why we're in Turkey. That is why we'll go to Thailand. And it is why we will come to the United States -- because industrialized farming is another huge issue here.”
The panel was asked to identify the best ways to mitigate further zoonotic viral pandemics. Phelps asserted that pandemics are entirely the result of how humans “interact with the environment and how we treat other species that coexist in the environment with us. A healthy environment equals healthy animals equals healthy humans,” she said.
“On a broader level, if we are thinking about the ways in which humans are impacting nearly every ecosystem around the world -- everything from deforestation to sea-level rise to urbanization and all of these multiple pathways in which the environment is changing -- they are having a devastating impact, not only on [themselves], but also on wildlife,” Golden added. “When we are damaging wildlife and causing them further stress, it further creates opportunities for viral transmission to occur. So, by doubling down and really focusing on conservation efforts, on issues of wildlife trade and on issues of this increasing interface with human-and-wildlife interaction, we can really try to prevent the next pandemic from occurring."
Asked specifically about bats, which have been erroneously blamed for causing the pandemic, Phelps replied, “One of the biggest misconceptions that the public has is that [pandemics] are the fault of any wildlife … that it’s their fault for transmitting a virus to humans when, in fact, it’s human encroachment into wildlife habitat that is precipitating or providing an opportunity for human-wildlife interactions that naturally would not occur. We want to blame somebody else. We don’t want to think of how we’re interacting with the environment and how that is actually driving these pandemics. With the misconception about wildlife -- people are mis-educated and want to eradicate those wildlife species. That includes killing wildlife or, for example, with bats, maybe lighting fires in caves and sealing them off [and killing] an entire colony of bats just out of fear.”
“All species of bats are not virus carriers, and this is definitely one of the myths and misconceptions that we want to dispel through this series,” Golden added. “The way of solving this is not to villainize animals. The way of solving this is to realize we must create conservation efforts. Creating healthy, natural eco-systems in which these animals can thrive in the absence of human interface, interaction and encroachment is the way that we can actually maintain a healthy eco-system and a healthy human population, simultaneously.”
“These pandemics occur over and over and over again in human history,” Goldberg concluded. “As soon as the immediate danger has passed, people put all that unpleasantness out of their heads and move on. But we totally should have been prepared for this. We always knew this was coming. And everybody knows the next one is coming, too. So, it’s a matter of [whether or not] we are going to learn the lessons of Covid-19 to get ready for the next pandemic, which we surely know is on the way. There are scientific lessons, but there are also political lessons about being able to embrace the problem, confront it and do something about it. This is one of the most important things that we can do as science-based, fact-based journalists, which is to keep telling this story.”
Virus Hunters will premiere on Sunday, November 1 at 9 p.m.
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