Although it feels like a few decades ago, the documentary 76 Days only began filming on January 23, 2020. That’s when the city of Wuhan, China, placed its 11 million citizens under lockdown to contain and stay ahead of the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. Situated in four city hospitals, directors Hao Wu and Weixi Chen, working with two Chinese journalists, document the embryonic stage of human exposure to the virus as the medical community grapples with its effects and the resulting sudden surge of patients through their doors.
The movie opens with a hospital worker, in full hazmat gear, screaming “Papa!” while peering into one of the rooms. On the other side of the door, her father, surrounded by healthcare workers trying to resuscitate him, loses his battle. As her colleagues try to console her, the worker wails, “You will forever stay in my heart!” as she opines being unable to be at his side. The door opens as he is wheeled out in a body bag.
It’s a heart-wrenching moment, but for those working in hospitals, grieving is a luxury that cannot be afforded at this stage of the pandemic. The filmmakers keep their cameras rolling throughout the halls as we see glimpses of the chaotic initial days. As the staff shuffle and scramble within, the hospital doors are besieged by cold, confused, and concerned citizens desperately seeking aid. We hear staff sharing the dwindling number of available beds, supplies, and equipment. We glimpse the ever-growing pile of personal belongings of the dead. We watch as scared patients plead (and be denied for safety reasons) to allow a loved one to accompany them during their stay.
“…documents the embryonic stage of human exposure to the virus as the medical community grapples with its effects…”
There are lighter moments within the movie’s runtime: staffers decorating one another’s safety suits with hopeful messages and drawings demonstrate their attempts to remain positive in the initial crush of occupants; a willful elderly patient presents a challenge to the staff with his frequent decision to meander around the ward.
But for the majority of its time, 76 Days offers a clinical, straightforward snapshot of the pandemic’s front lines and the accompanying confusion, chaos, and fear. And most importantly, it documents the seemingly endless wells of compassion, patience, and pragmatism from the tireless healthcare workers. As the days stretch into weeks, and there is a better understanding of the virus’ behavior, they adapt to the ever-shifting situations without losing a connection with those seeking their services.
Whether it’s ushering a roaming, rascally grandfather back to his room, holding the hand of a woman undergoing intubation, or even nurturing a newborn whose mother was diagnosed with COVID, they remain as solid as steel rods as the world around them teeters out of control. There is no flash, no statistical asides, and we never actually even see the staffers outside of their personalized safety suits, but 76 Days still manages to provide a narrative of the early stages of this pandemic while we here in the U.S. are still in its darkest days.
But it concludes with a hopeful message as normalcy slowly starts to flicker back. It serves as a compassionate portrait to the foot soldiers in healthcare who have been so essential in this ongoing battle and is a blueprint for how a community can rally when they put aside selfish excuses (like “facial inconveniences” and “personal freedoms”) and collaborate to overcome all the obstacles.
"…serves as a compassionate portrait to the foot soldiers in healthcare who have been so essential in this ongoing battle..."