‘The Invisible Shield’: Public health’s unseen (and underfunded) battle to save lives

Who would have thought that trying to save lives and protect health would arouse such hatred, fighting passions, and even violence against those who put their lives on the line to save others?

The Invisible Shield, RadicalMedia’s bold, comprehensive new four-part documentary series makes clear who would oppose such life-saving and why they would do it. The series traces the history of public health, well describes the forces shaping and opposing it, and painfully recounts notable case studies in this life-death struggle.

RadicalMedia has quite an outstanding record of achievement documenting different aspects of American life, including winning Academy Awards for Fog of War and Summer of Soul, along with two other Academy nominations, Emmy, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Independent Spirit, and Peabody Awards.

Throughout history, the struggle to save human lives has not been without controversy. Even during the catastrophic Black Death of the 14th century, when the plague threatened the very existence of humanity, saving lives was problematic.

It may have seemed like the end of the world, but those engaged in commerce, especially international trade, refused to let death slow down business. The best that early plague fighters could hope for was that ships would be screened and delayed to slow down the spread of disease.

The story of organized, institutionalized public health dates back around 400 years to when intrepid people began to collect data describing causes of death. Early bills of death, particularly those from London, gave a sense of health issues and their evolution over time.

In the U.S., Boston established the first board of health in 1799 and the first health department in 1799. Paul Revere was the first health officer. It was not until 1916, however, that Johns Hopkins University started the first academic Department of Epidemiology with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

As RadicalMedia point out, the driving force behind the development of public health has always been catastrophe. Often, the way we organized society caused people to fall sick and die. Epidemics like the spread of cholera, racist economic structures like slavery, and even capitalist industrialism nurtured danger and disease transmission. Profit-seekers opposed regulation of food preparation, sanitary equitable water distribution, and safe working conditions.

Prevention was at best an afterthought. The U.S. healthcare system was designed to ameliorate disease, not prevent it. The four installments in The Invisible Shield—”The Old Playbook,” “Follow the Data,” “Inoculation and Inequity,” and “The New Playbook”—trace public health care’s development in the context of American society and history.

Issues, constraints and case studies, trends and facts all combine to as the producers drill down on the mixed successes and painful failures in the battles to save a society from itself.


Testimony from a variety of experts ranging from former Health Director for the State of Ohio Amy Acton to Washington state’s crusading Gov. Jay Inslee outlines the resistance in the battle to salvage lives and protect populations. (Sadly, Acton was forced out of office and Inslee faced death threats for their public health actions.)

Perhaps most dismaying is that historical attitudes opposing efforts to safeguard Public Health continue to this very day. Even faced with facts, knowledge, and hard scientific evidence, benighted conservative populists and cynical, self-serving politicians have struggled against change that would improve and extend life. In recent years, we all witnessed the anti-vax and anti-mask right wing promote violence in their resistance to public health campaigns.

The film shows how this ignorant resistance is sometimes spread from the highest political offices in the country. Viewers see, for instance, former President Donald Trump refusing to develop a national plan for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and proudly declaring that he would not wear a safety mask.

Trump’s aggressive ignorance almost ends up costing him his own life, as he contracted the life-threatening disease. Science intervened to save him only after he had rebuked science and put a threatened nation at further risk.

The Invisible Shield clearly illustrates the value of the Public Health Service even in the face of hostile social and political forces.

The series premieres Tuesday, March 26, 2024, live-streaming on PBS. Please check your local listings for times within your viewing area.

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.