On December 31st, the government in Wuhan confirmed they had been treating dozens of cases of an unknown virus. By January 20th, other cases of this pathogen appeared in the United States, South Korea, and Thailand. Three days later, President Xi Jinping closed off Wuhan when 570 more cases had been confirmed.
The initial, negligent handling of the coronavirus and official’s delayed response is analogous to the disasters that unfolded with the 1986 Chernobyl incident, and is severe enough that Xi should be worried.
At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, almost exactly thirty-four years ago today, a routine test of the Chernobyl nuclear power station located in Kiev, Ukraine caused control rods to enter into the nuclear core. This created an unprecedented power surge that blew the 1,000 ton roof off of the reactor and caused radiation to spill into the air for 10 days.
At 2 p.m. on April 27th, some 36 hours later, Soviet officials finally proclaimed there had been an accident and began evacuating citizens for a “temporary” restabilization period. All the while, radiation was spilling so quickly that air monitors 2,577 km away in Sweden detected large amounts of iodine-131 the day after the evacuation. Despite this, Soviet officials falsely stated that “everything is under control.” People unknowingly carrying radiation on their bodies were migrating around the Soviet Union, with the government’s knowledge.
Sophia Moskalenko, 10 years old at the time of the incident
“It was a sunny Saturday, and I had spent most of the day outside, playing with other kids from our apartment building…We collected wildflowers and jagged clay pieces that we thought treasures until our mothers hollered our names through open windows, summoning us to dinner…As I ate my dinner, the sky was blue outside the wide-open window of the kitchen. I didn’t learn about Chernobyl for several days.”
Within weeks, 54 people died from radiation exposure. Another 4,000 civilians would get cancer, and some 120,000 clean-up workers would pass away from radiation poisoning. Today, these figures continue to rise.
Today’s threat is different from a nuclear explosion. Radiation is not a pathogen; during the 1980’s, the spread of radiation went only so far as available transportation could carry it. And this occurred at a much slower rate. On the other hand, the coronavirus has spread across the globe at incredible speeds through modern transportation and increased interconnectivity.
What parallels is individual reaction. There is an omnipresent feeling of vulnerability to an invisible threat. Trying to distinguish fact from propaganda and truth from deceitful words of relief raises questions about the trustworthiness of the government. To be sure, questions are proliferating in all realms and, the matter is, scientists are working with the unknown and political leaders across the globe have intentions that may vary from our own.
The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl struck a critical juncture in Gorbachev’s rule, just following his promise of transparency and reconstruction through glasnost and perestroika. Yet, it took weeks before Gorbachev stood in front of the public to discuss the incident for the first time. His promises were quickly overturned as the Soviets reverted back to their ways of secrecy and self-serving interests.
Xi’s authoritarian regime had many of the same initial responses, and subsequent strategies. As of last week, China’s propaganda blitz has focused on pivoting the blame of COVID-19 away from China, saying that it had nothing to do with its spread. Similar to the Kremlin, the Chinese government let the virus go unchecked for weeks from its initial start in Wuhan earlier last December. Despite cases emerging across Southeast Asia, as in Thailand and Singapore, Chinese officials muzzled scientific reporting and rejected visits from American health authorities in the earliest stages of the epidemic.
Chinese officials also lied about the seriousness of the situation. One of China’s more esteemed epidemiologists (a person who studies the accumulation and spread of diseases) said that if the government had acted sooner, “the number of sick would be greatly reduced.”
Said by an anonymous Central Hospital department head in Wuhan, China
“The false information released by the relevant departments — claiming the disease was controllable and would not spread from human-to-human — left hundreds of doctors and nurses in the dark, doing all they could to treat patients without knowing about the epidemic.”
As was the case with the Soviets, Chinese authorities failed to critically address the burgeoning issue, making claims that the virus could not spread from human contact. Social media discourse about the virus was heavily censored, even when propagated by doctors and health officials. And like Gorbachev, it took Xi weeks before he finally acknowledged the crisis on January 20th. A full three days later, he declared Wuhan to be on lockdown. But by that time, some 5 million Wuhan residents had traveled across China and overseas.
Beijing has tried to project the lackluster response to the virus onto local officials, as the Kremlin did to devoid themselves from the growing reprisal. But in both cases, the blame lies within the penchant for praise funneled through censorship, misinformation, and dystopic control.
The world should look towards the handling of both the nuclear disaster and the coronavirus outbreak as an example of the need for more transparent, intimate, and regular collaboration between governmental officials and health personnel to act earlier and more decisively in a globalized world. There needs to be an open, international forum for discussion that leverages the work of impartial IGOs and NGOs, such as the WHO and Doctors Without Borders. This is especially true for underdeveloped countries who are shouldering immense burden from the outbreak. A decisive plan for recovering from the fragmentation of the economy and society and strategizing ways to prevent its further dismembering needs to be reached.
With Chernobyl capturing the world’s attention almost 40 years ago, perhaps the current world was myopic when it came to the coronavirus outbreak. In the aftermath of the pandmeic, Xi needs to acknowledge his government’s failure to respond to the initial outbreak and subsequent disregard for its spread.