This post has several spoilers for the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. In some ways, you can’t really spoil a show about a historical event, but you may want to skip this post if you haven’t seen it before.
Coronavirus is the new Chernobyl. Both are crises caused by something we can’t see with the naked eye. Both started in authoritarian countries, and both have made scientists the heroes and trusted officials of the day.
Mechanically, they are very different. Chernobyl is about an exploded reactor pouring out radioactive fallout, while COVID-19 is about a living virus. But the response has felt similar, and that’s what’s making me disappointed.
The Chernobyl mini-series on HBO is really well made, and although it is not always historically accurate, it’s accurate enough to paint some pretty stark parallels.
Everything is Normal
Craig Mazin, the writer and executive producer of Chernobyl, did a podcast about the series, where he talks about the show and the historical event. In episode 2, he mentions one streak of bad luck that didn’t make it to the show.
The Chernobyl accident happened on April 26. Five days later was May 1, International Workers’ Day. This was a big holiday for the Soviet Union, and in the days before May 1, party officials understood the scope of Chernobyl’s danger. They wanted to cancel holiday celebrations, to reduce exposure to radioactive dust. They failed, because the Kremlin told them that Everything Was Normal. Why would you take precautions when there’s nothing to worry about?
We’re talking about parades. In Kiev, in Minsk, there were party officials who, it honestly seems to me, begged, BEGGED, to cancel the parade. They were told that not only would they not cancel the parade, you’ll be walking in it too. And they did.
(starts at 22:10)
Everything’s fine - until it isn’t. Craig emphasizes that people in the Soviet Union bureaucracy weren’t monsters. They knew it was dangerous to be outside, but were overruled by those who cared about reputation more than safety.
Never Mind, This Isn’t Normal
Plenty of Soviet disasters got covered up and were only declassified long after they occurred. Chernobyl couldn’t be kept a secret, because the wind carried radioactive particles to Sweden and other European countries. After that, it couldn’t be kept a secret.
Radioactive fallout is not the same as a virus. A single case of the virus can multiply and turn into a million cases. Radiation does not replicate this way. Chernobyl is special because people close to the reactor were exposed to so much radiation that they ended up giving off radiation themselves. The firefighter uniforms from that day are still in the basement of the abandoned Pripyat hospital, too radioactive to approach without the right protective gear.
Nearby countries told their citizens to avoid eating wild game and vegetables, and to follow basic decontamination measures.
There’s radioactive dust, she said; close all the windows and plug all the cracks. Later, my anxiety grew when I saw her husband Andrei taking off his clothes and putting them in a plastic bag before entering his apartment.
As for the Soviet Union, to their credit, they did take drastic action once it was clear they had to. Thanks to an authoritarian government and a culture that pushed the collective over the individual, the evacuation and cleanup was fairly orderly.
So they finally evacuate Pripyat. One thing I was struck [by] was how orderly it was. I was like, oh you’re evacuating an entire town 50,000 people, and I could only think of what that would be like if they tried to do that to a similar town in America. People would be yelling, people would be complaining, people would be demanding they were allowed to bring that […] Everybody just said “alright” and climbed up onto the [evacuation] buses.
The citizenry, by all accounts except one, was incredibly orderly. Again, reflective of the society in which they lived and grew up. The police said, “You’re coming with us. You’re coming on the bus. You can take one suitcase and no pets, and you’ll be back in a few days.” And everybody just said, “Okay, I’ll get on the bus.” […] And they never, ever, ever came back.
(starts at 28:55)
Scientists Become Heroes
Chernobyl made everyone care a lot more about nuclear physicists. Coronavirus is making everyone care a lot more about epidemiologists. Valery Legasov is the protagonist of the Chernobyl mini-series, and in real life he was the chief of the commission investigating Chernobyl. For the West, he became one of the faces of the Soviet response, since he presented the Soviet report at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, detailing what happened in Chernobyl. He was well-respected for acknowledging failures in the Soviet response, although his public testimony covered up design flaws in Soviet nuclear reactor design.
Now we have Fauci, who is generally popular (56% trust rating as of May 2), and one of the figureheads of the Coronavirus Task Force. The CDC playbook for communication mentions the importance of having a single lead spokesperson who’s a scientist, not a politician. Having a single spokesperson increases trust because of familiarity, and making that person a scientist reduces risk of politicizing the disease. If half the country trusts the CDC less because of a culture war, it’s a disaster for public health. See this New Yorker article for more.
According to the YouGov study above, Fauci’s 56% trust rating is split 68% among Democrats and 48% among Republicans. It is already too late for the United States.
Reality Doesn’t Care About Politics
The Chernobyl mini-series is ostensibly about the events of Chernobyl, but it’s really more about how people responded to Chernobyl. That’s the aspect I was reminded of first, and the reason I started writing this post.
Chernobyl and COVID-19 aren’t really about people. Sure, people are part of both, but their fundamentals are grounded in physical reality: infectious diseases for COVID-19, and radiation for Chernobyl. It’s like the classic Philip K. Dick quote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” A worryingly large number of decision makers aren’t respecting reality.
I’m not sure of the historical accuracy of this moment, but in Episode 3 of the mini-series, “Open Wide, O Earth”, Legasov and Scherbina are arguing over the size of an evacuation zone. Legasov learns the evacuation zone has been set to 30 km, and wants it to be much, much larger. He is overruled.
Legasov: “How did this happen? Who gave them this idea?”
Scherbina: “Are you suggesting I did?”
Legasov: “Well someone decided the evacuation zone should be 30 km, when we know– (points to map) Here! Cesium-137 in Gomel District. Two HUNDRED kilometers away!”
Scherbina: “It was decided.”
Legasov: “Based on WHAT?”
Scherbina: “I don’t know.”
Legasov: “Forgive me. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in my lab. Or maybe I’m stupid. But is this really how it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives is made by some apparatchik? Some career Party man?”
This is worth emphasizing: no one is forced to do things that make sense. To be a politician, the only thing you have to understand is people. Who they are, how they think, what they believe, and how to convince them to support you. That’s certainly not easy, it requires you to be shrewd and to have a good read of people. But there’s no particular reason to expect politicians to be good at anything besides navigating structures of power. They don’t have to be well-informed about anything, unless it’s politically expedient to be well-informed. Unfortunately, that approach is exactly what doesn’t work for the coronavirus.
If the coronavirus was a people problem, maybe you could use charm and wit to defuse the situation. But you can’t. You can’t talk to the coronavirus to understand what it does and doesn’t want. You can’t work the room to get the disease to spread slower. You can’t cut a deal with coronavirus to make it kill fewer people. No, it’s there, it exists, and you have to deal with it - or not. This has been repeated elsewhere, but all political instincts are wrong at the start of a pandemic, and you pay a price if those instincts aren’t overruled.
You hope you get a politician that understands the problem, has the grit to take unfavorable actions, and they use their experience in navigating deals to get what matters to the people who need it. By the end of the series, Scherbina is that man.
Scherbina: I’m an inconsequential man, Valery. I hoped one day I would matter, but I didn’t. I just stood next to people who did.
Legasov: There are other scientists like me. Any one of them could have done what I did. You– everything we asked for: men, material, lunar rovers. Who else could have done these things? They heard me, but they listened to you. […] Of all the ministers, and all the deputies, the entire congregation of obedient fools, they mistakenly sent the one good man. For God’s sake Boris, you were the one who mattered most.
There’s this phenomenon, where people in politics and PR will repeat something that isn’t true, and if they do so often enough, people will believe it. Those people will even start using motivated reasoning to create their own justification for what you’re saying. This works for subjects that are complicated enough to have ambiguity in their causality, but it doesn’t work very well for the narrow slice of reality that COVID-19 occupies.
In episode 4, “For the Happiness of All Mankind”, the Soviet Union explores using robots to clear debris off the Chernobyl reactor roof. Radiation damages electronics. The Soviet robots they had from the Space Race could withstand some radiation, but not the highest levels of radiation detected on the roof.
Through tense off-screen negotiations, they get a robot from West Germany which can withstand the reported numbers. They try it out, and the robot fails immediately. Scherbina soon learns why.
Scherbina: The official position of the State is that a global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union. They told the Germans that the highest detected level of radiation was 2000 roentgen. They gave them the propaganda number. That robot was never going to work.
Think about this for a second. Someone high up in the government decided to give a propaganda number, instead of a real one. That filtered all the way down the bureaucracy, down to the people figuring out how to borrow a robot from the West. That one lie, from someone who cared more about reputation than accuracy, wasted the time of the negotiators, of the robot constructors from West Germany, of the technicians who operated it - all of it, gone.
I cannot think of a better argument for why you should care who your boss is, and who your elected officials are. If technology is a multiplier of both good and bad, then power is too. What does it say when both Republican and Democrat governors hid flight details of testing and PPE shipments from the federal government, to avoid confiscation? It’s just absurd.
The central theme of the Chernobyl mini-series is truth, and the lies surrounding it. This was why the showrunners tried to stay historically accurate. They thought it would be cheap to send a message about truth that was wrapped in artistic lies, and reality was dramatic enough. When the inevitable COVID-19 documentaries arrive, I hope they make the same decision.