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The Invisible Shield

New PBS series The Invisible Shield examines how public health makes modern life possible

Inspired by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and rooted in the history of healthcare systems worldwide, PBS’s new documentary series, The Invisible Shield, explores the intricacies of public safety and global health. For the first time, as if by magic, the so-called “invisible shield” materialized clearly before our eyes. What’s more is that when it appeared, we bore witness to all the “cracks in its foundation.” Now, four years later, we’re left to pick up the pieces and patch those very cracks so that we can once more have protection against the dangers that plague us.

The Invisible Shield premieres its first of four parts Tuesday, March 26. The remaining three episodes will each air weekly on the network until the finale in late April.

The Invisible Shield on PBS. Pictured: An 1849 public health notice about preventing cholera.
Sunday Oregonian

Beginning March 26 with a look back to the Black Death of the 14th century, the first episode — titled “The Old Playbook” — shows how “public health has transformed human life, silently protecting us from disease and fatalities” since the 1300s. Diving into the stories behind everything “from quarantines to crosswalks” and “vaccines to modern sanitation,” the birth and modernization of public health has made a huge difference in our lives by increasing our life expectancy as a species (especially in the western world) and “[keeping] illness, injury and death at bay” (per PBS).

“The Old Playbook” opens up the rest of the series to an investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic, and why this virus was the one to bring the current system to its knees during one of the most technologically advanced periods in human history.

The Invisible Shield on PBS. Pictured: A 1919 poster recommending masks to fight the Spanish flu.
Sunday Oregonian

Taking up the mantle on April 9, the docuseries’ second episode, “Follow the Data,” speaks to the research driving public health forward. Per the official episode synopsis, “Data has been an essential public health tool since at least the 17th century, when cities began regularly recording mortality statistics [and] has guided public health policy since the earliest practices of data collection in the 1800s to identify the spread of disease . . . But with public health authority delegated to the 50 states, forming a national response to the virus proves difficult.”

By showcasing a series of unique stories told by those closest to the centre of public health, The Invisible Shield helps bring understanding to a complex issue that poses a lot of concern for the average global citizen. Punctuated by interviews, archival footage, data and insight from “impressive front-line leaders and global experts,” this deep-dive into the past and future of public health is necessary viewing for every adult or young person looking to gain more insight into the world around us while preparing for what is to come.

The Invisible Shield on PBS. Pictured: Seattle police officers in 1918, wearing masks made by the Red Cross to prevent spread of the Spanish flu.
National Library of Medicine

While discussing the new series, Sylvia Bugg, chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming at PBS, expressed her desire for the documentary.

“We hope that, as healing is taking place post-pandemic, our audiences will walk away with an even deeper awareness of the function of public health and have greater hope for the future,” Bugg said in the news release.

In addition to those on the front lines — such as doctors, nurses, engineers, sanitation service workers, activists and more — former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is also weighing in on the conversation.

“Anyone who buckles a seatbelt, eats a meal without trans fats or works in a smoke-free workplace benefits from public health, even if they don’t realize it,” says Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, and WHO global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases and injuries. “Public health policies save and improve millions of lives, but too often, their power is undervalued and misunderstood. This new series shines a much-needed spotlight on public health’s extraordinary successes — and the heroes who make them possible, every day.”

As The Invisible Shield closes out in episodes three and four, the focus begins to shift toward the present day, as “public health officials face the headwinds of disinformation, science skepticism and government distrust as they begin the monumental task of vaccinating the public against COVID-19” (per the PBS episode synopsis). By the fourth episode, “The New Playbook,” PBS looks to the future with hope, informing viewers of plans for the future of public health in the U.S. and around the world.

The Invisible Shield airs Tuesday, March 26 on WTVS; 10 p.m., KCTS

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