The U.S. COVID Death Toll Has Passed 1 Million. These Documentaries Offer Context.

A still image from May 2021's "The Healthcare Divide" — one of 14 documentaries from FRONTLINE and reporting partners offering context on the coronavirus as the U.S. nears 1 million COVID deaths.

A still image from May 2021's "The Healthcare Divide" — one of 14 documentaries from FRONTLINE and reporting partners offering context on the coronavirus as the U.S. nears 1 million COVID deaths.

May 5, 2022

The COVID death toll in the U.S. passed 1 million people on May 17, 2022, according to Johns Hopkins University‘s COVID tracker.

The grim and once-unthinkable milestone comes more than two years after the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March 2020. It’s a toll reflecting a U.S. COVID death rate that a February 2022 New York Times analysis found to be “far higher” than that of other wealthy countries.

Officially, there have been more than 6 million COVID deaths recorded worldwide since the coronavirus first emerged. But the World Health Organization said May 5, 2022, that there had been an estimated 14.9 million excess deaths “associated directly or indirectly” with the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in an announcement.

FRONTLINE has been chronicling developments in the coronavirus pandemic since the beginning. The following films from FRONTLINE’s collection of streaming documentaries provide context on how we reached this point, how COVID spread across the country and the world, and how the pandemic has impacted communities in America and around the globe that were already vulnerable.

The Healthcare Divide investigated the growing inequities in American healthcare exposed by COVID-19.

This May 2021 documentary with NPR examined how pressure to increase profits and uneven government support widened the divide between rich and poor hospitals, endangering care for low-income populations.

The Virus That Shook the World documented how how people and countries responded to COVID-19 across cultures, races, faiths and privilege.

From April 2021, this two-part series which was filmed around the globe, and used extensive personal video and local footage told the epic story of how people lived through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, from lockdowns to funerals to protests.

Death Is Our Business showed how Black funeral homes in New Orleans adapted to the devastating impact of COVID-19 in their community.

A co-production from FRONTLINE, Firelight Media and WORLD Channel, this March 2021 short documentary examined the racial disparities of the virus’ toll and shone a light on how COVID rocked the Black community’s cherished cultural practices in a city that is no stranger to loss and grief.

China’s COVID Secrets pieced together the untold story of the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, revealing the gulf between what Chinese officials knew and what they told the world.

In this February 2021 documentary, Chinese scientists and doctors, international disease experts and health officials revealed missed opportunities to suppress the outbreak — and lessons for the world.

Yemen’s COVID Cover-Up investigated how the coronavirus pandemic deepened what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Also from February 2021, this special report showed how, between war, aid cuts, a child starvation crisis and COVID, millions of Yemenis were in a desperate situation. The short doc also found evidence of a far higher death toll in Houthi-controlled Northern Yemen than Houthi authorities were admitting.

American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil chronicled a time of tumult across a deeply divided America, from the pandemic to the polls.

Filmed across the U.S. for much of 2020, this documentary from November of that year followed Americans as they dealt with COVID-19 in their communities, responded to George Floyd’s killing, and experienced the polarizing presidential election and its aftermath.

America’s Medical Supply Crisis investigated why the U.S. was left scrambling for critical medical equipment as the coronavirus swept the country.

From N95 masks to ventilators, FRONTLINE, The Associated Press and the Global Reporting Centre investigated the fragmented global medical supply chain and the deadly consequences of equipment shortages in this October 2020 documentary.

Growing Up Poor in America looked at how the pandemic was impacting kids living in poverty.

Their families were already struggling to make ends meet. Then came the coronavirus. This September 2020 documentary followed children in three Ohio families one Black, one mixed-race and one white as the COVID-19 pandemic amplified their struggles to stay afloat.

Love, Life & the Virus told the story of a Guatemalan immigrant mother’s fight to survive COVID and see her newborn baby.

This August 2020 documentary — an emotional look at one family’s quest to be reunited and the community members who helped make it possible — is also available with subtitles en español.

Undocumented in the Pandemic looked at a Honduran immigrant’s struggle to keep her children safe and housed, while her husband was detained by ICE in a facility where COVID was spreading.

With The Marshall Project and the Pulitzer Center, this August 2020 film provided a window into the realities of navigating the pandemic while undocumented.

COVID’s Hidden Toll investigated how the coronavirus impacted essential agriculture workers who pick and process America’s food supply.

This July 2020 documentary followed some of the coronavirus pandemic’s invisible victims, including crucial farm and meat-packing workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, who lacked protections and were getting sick.

The Virus: What Went Wrong? looked at why America’s leaders failed to prepare for the pandemic, despite repeated warnings.

From June 2020, this investigation identified fateful missteps in the world’s — and the Trump administration’s — early responses to the pandemic.

Inside Italy’s COVID War followed a doctor and her colleagues on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, as Italy’s crisis was peaking.

This May 2020 film captured medical professionals waging a harrowing fight against the disease, as it overwhelmed a hospital in northern Italy and put an 18-year-old on a ventilator.

Coronavirus Pandemic looked at what happens when politics and science collide.

This April 2020 investigation of the American response to COVID-19 contrasted Washington state’s early approach to the virus with that of Washington, D.C.

Beyond the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of additional documentaries are available in FRONTLINE’s collection of streaming films and on the PBS Video App.

This story, originally published May 5, was updated once the U.S. death toll crossed 1 million on May 17.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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