“… Lately, this has been felt repeatedly. When you come home from the street, you take off your mask, gloves and wash your hands. But you think: what about your clothes? Is it safe to keep clothes in the house that you wear outside? What if it’s also infected with a virus? Of course, you can change. But what if the virus particles are already scattered all over the place? Some will call it paranoia. I call it déjà vu. These experiences are very familiar to me. I remember them since 1986, from the moment of the Chernobyl accident. I recognize these thoughts. Moreover, I remember feelings.”
This is how Sergei Plokhiy, a professor at Harvard University, the author of the book “Chernobyl: the history of tragedy”, describes his experiences today. The scientist appeals to memory against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. He offers to draw conclusions from the lessons of our own history. We have already experienced something similar. So, is it worth to make the same mistake twice? Further, there is his human and professional point of view on the events taking place around us.
“.. So, after all, deja vu. I feel constant fear, realizing that everything around me can be dangerous. I experienced this for the first time 34 years ago, in May 1986, when I arrived in Kiev. This happened a few weeks after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I deliberately came on a business trip to a city located a hundred kilometers from the disaster zone. We knew that the air is literally saturated with radiation. Trucks sprayed the streets with cleaning solution. Foreign students left the capital of Ukraine en masse.
Foreign media, collecting bit by bit details about the disaster in the USSR, recommended not going outside. The Washington Post and the BBC warned their compatriots in Kiev to be very careful. On the one hand, everyone insisted that there was no danger. But on the other hand, they said almost in a low voice to make sure that children and pregnant women didn’t leave the premises. Keep all windows closed. What to believe? At first, it was difficult to figure it out.
There are no walls for the virus, as well as for radiation
In 1986, as is now the case with COVID-19, we were dealing with an invisible enemy. Then, as today, we tried to figure out where the invisible particles that bring death could go. Then, as now, the world had to face disaster. Today, as in 1986, people are frightened and disoriented. Many are trying to fight alone with the enemy, which is impossible to hear, touch, feel.
Today, COVID-19, like Chernobyl-86, has drastically changed our lives, shaking out its disguised well-being inside out. What happened then remains relevant today. Disaster knows no boundaries. Virus and radiation… It doesn’t matter how many barriers we try to build between them and the rest of the world. There are no walls or restrictions for the virus, as well as for radiation. If they are an obstacle, it is only “temporary”. Actually, even “temporary security”, both then and now, hasn’t been available to everyone.
The Chernobyl accident pushed the “battleship of a happy communist future” to the edge of the abyss. The collapse of the Soviet empire became evident not only in the West, but also in the country of the Soviets itself. After the accident at the ChNPP, experts stated that the Iron Curtain was outdated. The Union began to come apart at the seams. A radioactive cloud was the first to escape from it.
Radiation bypassed the borders of the Soviet empire. Having freely passed through the eastern block, it penetrated into Western Europe. A couple of days after the explosion in Chernobyl, on April 28, 1986, the radiation cloud reached Scandinavia.
This initially caused panic and alarm at a nuclear power plant near Uppsala, Sweden. The Stockholm authorities were not going to hide from the world community the fact of an increased radiation background near their borders. Actually, it was thanks to the Swedes that the world learned that a man-made disaster had befallen the planet. They were the first to sound the alarm. Moreover, they forced Moscow to publicly admit the fact of the accident, which it tried to “keep silent” in every possible way.
China is no longer the leader of world globalization
The wind blew radioactive Chernobyl clouds everywhere. By radioactive dust and rain, isotopes of strontium-90 and cesium-137 fell out in neighboring Belarus and western Russia. Radiation covered the entire Scandinavian Peninsula, the Balkans, Austria, Germany and Switzerland, a part of Wales, England and Scotland. The USSR was unable to cope with the spread of radiation. It couldn’t stop the radiation clouds. Ultimately, the “mighty and indestructible” state lost the ability to control even its own future.
Doesn’t this remind you of anything? The parallel with China is clear enough. The Chinese authorities, keeping the scale of the epidemic from the world community, chose to fight the disaster on their own. China decided that COVID-19 will not go beyond the state. However, the Chinese problem has sharply become international and planetary.
Beijing in 2019 almost duplicated the actions of Moscow in 1986. The official announcement of the COVID-19 outbreak was just as belated, dry and superficial. It did not reflect all the consequences of the disaster. So, obviously, the authorities wanted to hide something. The Soviet Union has mobilized enormous financial and human resources to deal with the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. China has also adopted domestic measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. But none of these governments have been able to stop the spread of the disaster beyond their borders. The misleading reports have generated negative reactions from foreign governments and the world community.
China, which claimed to be the world leader in globalization and climate change, lost the leading position. The events in Wuhan, which led to a global pandemic, damaged the Chinese reputation. There have already been claims against the PRC in international courts regarding compensation for damage, caused by the spread of COVID-19.
The United States of America was the initiator of bringing China to justice. Missouri Attorney Eric Schmitt is demanding more than just economic damages from China. He calls for bringing the PRC to international responsibility for deliberately distorting and concealing a potential threat to humanity.
Authoritarianism turns a domestic problem into international cataclysms
Undoubtedly, any authoritarian regime is effective in mobilizing resources and managing information. However, the lack of freedom of speech according to some of its laws that are not subject to the regime triggers the reverse mechanism. What they are deliberately trying to hide with all their might is bursting out with the power of the explosion of the 4th reactor of the ChNPP. Having escaped, it turns a potential disaster into a real one, and a national tragedy into international cataclysms.
Many are really asking today: what strain of the virus should humanity expect next time? What will be its “unpredictable consequences”? What steps to take and how to prepare to avoid the next tragedy? Practice shows that the answer to these questions should be sought at the national level.
It is not enough just to close an emergency nuclear power plant or the borders of a separate state. It is not enough to simply point the finger at China, accusing it of all deadly sins. Well, since global cataclysms arise on the planet, then the whole world should solve them. Alas, the planet is getting sick. As a result, we need to urgently look for a qualified doctor, look wherever possible. We can hope for a correct diagnosis and successful treatment only with the involvement of all international institutions.
Chernobyl: The Role of the IAEA
The international community expected this from the IAEA after the Chernobyl accident. However, the closed nature of the Soviet system did not allow the Agency to properly cover the Chernobyl problem at the initial stage. In 1986, the International Atomic Energy Agency was rightly criticized for helping to hide the secrets of Chernobyl. But in the end, it was the IAEA that became the “institution of truth”. It helped Moscow to realize the scale of the Chernobyl tragedy.
The agency has concentrated international efforts to bring the Soviet nuclear industry closer to world safety standards. It opened the iron curtain for the nuclear power industry of the USSR. After the Chernobyl accident, the IAEA adopted a number of new international legal standards for the operation of nuclear power plants. They provide not only their ultimate safety, but also timely warning of nuclear accidents.
Of course, nobody canceled the possible risks. Nuclear power is still among the leaders in the ranking of the most dangerous sectors of human life. Therefore, a gradual transition to the production of electricity from alternative sources is a long overdue and irreversible process.
IAEA and WHO: another deja vu
We are trying to “contain the coronavirus”. We are carrying out a number of quarantine measures for this purpose. This has already yielded some positive results. But even they did not become a “straitjacket” for COVID-19. The World Health Organization continues to be accused of failing to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The US President has partially suspended funding for WHO. Presumably, he thinks that this decision will stop COVID-19. Otherwise, why do we need it?
The blame game hasn’t solved any problem yet. The current litigation is undermining multilateral agreements. They are neither a way out of the current pandemic, nor a template for dealing with future disasters. Only mutual and trusting dialogue is the way forward. The lessons learned from the Chernobyl disaster illustrate this.
Maximum coordinated actions lead to the most effective result. Lobbying someone’s interests, hiding the real scale of the problem wraps up their number like a snowball. Today, some are trying to blame the Ministry of Health for its friendly relations with the Chinese government. We may recall 1986, when the IAEA tried to impose loyalty to the USSR.
In fact, one should remember that any local cataclysms should automatically open doors for world experts. International monsters are being created for this aim: WHO in medicine, IAEA in the nuclear industry. Reducing funding for such international organizations is extremely harmful in today’s interconnected world. On the contrary, it is necessary to strengthen international institutions in their ability to deal with pandemics. They should have a stronger mandate to act in countries with an authoritarian regime.
International measures are the only effective response to global cataclysms, natural disasters. The Chernobyl experience shows that only joint international efforts can bring real help. The clarity of coverage of the problems that have arisen and coordinated actions to localize them makes life more or less predictable and safe. This does not depend on where we live: in Beijing, Kiev, Moscow, London or New York.
I would like to experience regularly this is the type of déjà vu: mutual assistance and mutual support. I believe that we will soon come to understand this inevitable mutual process. Otherwise, humanity should lose.”