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Mon 10 August 2020
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Hardeep Matharu finds echoes of the nuclear explosion that helped end the Soviet Union in the UK’s response to COVID-19, which has resulted in one of the highest Coronavirus death rates in the world.

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How Events Played Out

As children played and people went about lost in the peace of their everyday lives, the air was carrying a deadly killer. Then, as now, the threat was invisible but it was poisoning the bodies of those unwittingly hosting its particles. Breaking-up their DNA, killing and mutilating their cells, the people of Pripyat were walking around dying.

On Saturday 26 April 1986, the core of reactor number four of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant – known as Chernobyl – exploded in Soviet Ukraine. For 10 days, the blaze released toxic radiation into the air across the country and beyond.

Thirty-three years later, following a cluster of cases of unexplained pneumonia, reports surfaced of a novel Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, on New Year’s Eve 2019. The first instances of the disease it causes, COVID-19, were confirmed in the UK just a month later, on Friday 31 January. The highly contagious virus, to which humans have no immunity and for which there is no vaccine, similarly lingers in the air, as well as on everyday surfaces we normally wouldn’t think twice about touching.  

Chernobyl’s great irony was that the explosion occurred during a safety test on the ‘RBMK’ nuclear reactor. Attempts to restore its power, when it unexpectedly dropped to close to zero, led to it becoming highly unstable. When the crew thought they were averting disaster by pressing the fail-safe button AZ-5 to shut the reactor down, they were actually igniting it. The reactor core exploded. The impossible had occurred.

Chernobyl was no mere nuclear accident, just as the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak is not only an epidemiological phenomenon. The national reactions to both are symptoms of something deeper…

Unlike those working at Chernobyl that night, the UK Government was handed the gifts of both time and information when it came to the Coronavirus. It saw the devastation suffered by our European neighbours in Italy and Spain. It knew it would only be a matter of time until it arrived in the UK. Its most recent pandemic simulation, Exercise Cygnus, had warned in 2016 that the country’s “preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope”. But, rather than learn from others and contain the virus, few timely measures were put in place. Just like the radiation which spewed from Chernobyl into innocent bodies, the Coronavirus was left to spread. 

The few journalists who questioned the Government’s response were branded more dangerous than the virus itself by an establishment media intimately involved in protecting those in power no matter the cost. When a lockdown was eventually imposed on 23 March, it was already too late. The UK now has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, with 50,000 people having lost their lives

Valery Legasov. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/USFCRFC

The work of Soviet scientists, including Valery Legasov, uncovered the tragedy at the heart of Chernobyl: that the nuclear reactor’s key fail-safe was, in fact, an activator of destruction on an epic scale. The tips of control rods designed to re-enter the reactor in order to shut it down on the pressing of the AZ-5 button were made of graphite – a chemical which increased reactivity, rather than lowered it. It was cheaper. While those working at the nuclear power plant had no idea that this safeguard was an accelerator, a KGB report had highlighted the flaw in the RBMK reactor years before.

The UK Government was similarly not in the dark over COVID-19. Who then is to blame?

The explosion did not just destroy a nuclear reactor but the Soviet Union itself.

Legasov’s life changed forever when he was appointed chief of the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster. Alongside the flaws in the nuclear reactor itself, human error was also discovered, which had created the conditions for the explosion to occur. Those who carried out the safety test were unprepared as there had just been a shift change and the behaviour of deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov was criminally reckless and certainly contributed significantly to what happened. Reasoning was flawed and conditions pressurised. 

In our search for good men and devils, for black and white answers, it would be easy to paint Legasov as this story’s hero and Dyatlov its villain. To blame Boris Johnson alone for letting the Coronavirus spread, while clapping our health and care workers for dealing heroically with its fall-out. 

But, it is not that simple. 

Would anyone in the control room at Chernobyl that night have pressed the fail-safe button if they had known the ruin it would cause?


Unbending Realities

No amount of spin or propaganda can change the half-life of radioactive materials or the transmissibility and fatality rate of a novel virus. Chernobyl was no mere nuclear accident, just as the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak is not only an epidemiological phenomenon. The national reactions to both are symptoms of something deeper; of a rotting system – exposing and horrifying – revealing just how far detached we can become from the cost of human life in the face of lies.

They lied and lied and lied and lied but always, always was this enormous tub full of incredibly dangerous elements that was ready to blow up if the proper conditions were met.

Craig Mazin

The explosion did not just destroy a nuclear reactor but the Soviet Union itself. Independence movements – particularly in Ukraine and Belarus, the two most affected regions – found life in its wake and the empire fell five years later. In 2006, Mikhail Gorbachev, on whose watch the disaster unfolded, said that “the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl… even more than my launch of Perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”.

Having confronted the Soviet state with uncomfortable truths, Legasov’s career and professional standing disintegrated. Before hanging himself one day after the disaster’s second anniversary, he recorded a series of tapes about what had happened at Chernobyl. Although the Soviet Union had tried to hide key findings, with Legasov’s suicide, his concerns were finally heard. All remaining RBMK reactors were adapted to avoid the possibility of the disaster happening again – particularly the tips of the control rods. 

In a fictionalised scene in last year’s hit dramatisation Chernobyl by Craig Mazin, Legasov tells a Soviet show trial that “our secrets and our lies… are practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there.” 

The five-part series, which thoughtfully explores how truth lies in wait, ends with Legasov reflecting on its ultimate, unavoidable nature: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid… Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: what is the cost of lies?”

Chernobyl was a meltdown of the Soviet facade, beneath which a ‘socialist’ state lived premised on brutality, individual survival and perverse incentives for those in power; the prioritisation of perception and principle over people. Its hypernormalised citizens, aware that they were lied to, were stuck in a numbing politics of eternity.

“It exposed the worst kind of Soviet lie to the world,” Mazin told The Chernobyl Podcast. “They were able, in various phases in the history of the Soviet Union, to visit terrible things upon their own people and yet still keep the people either believing out of faith or believing out of fear, which is not really believing but submitting. But, in this case, it seemed as if some sort of genie had leapt out of the lamp and could not ever be put back, in the same way that this nuclear reactor had opened up and the stuff that came out could not be put back in.”


TOXIC COMBINATIONS

The relevance of a nuclear reactor explosion in Soviet Ukraine in 1986 may have seemed alien and absurd just a few months ago, but parallels between that world and ours are not now hard to see.

A late lockdown, the fudging of figures, heroism in the face of danger, meaningless measurements and scapegoated scientists – Chernobyl is not so far away from Coronavirus UK in 2020.

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Late Lockdown

The closest town to the explosion, Pripyat, was evacuated 36 hours after the incident, when many had already been exposed to radiation. On the morning after, mothers were “pushing prams and children were playing in the street – just like any other Sunday”, Legasov observed. School children in Belarus and Ukraine were told to continue with May Day parades. When people were evacuated, they were told this would be for a few days. The exclusion zone remains in place today, uninhabitable for at least 20,000 years.

In Mazin’s dramatisation, when those in the Soviet command first discuss a response to the explosion, a fictitious elderly communist official tells them to protect the standing of the Soviet system at all costs: “We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour.”

The UK Government was also late to act on COVID-19 and coloured by ideology. It lost vital time by initially pursuing a dangerous ‘herd immunity’ policy of allowing the virus to spread through the population – a concept only usually discussed in relation to vaccination or in veterinary epidemiology. In the weeks before a lockdown was eventually imposed, hundreds of thousands of people attended the Cheltenham Festival, went to packed concerts, pubs and restaurants. Football fans arrived in the country with no checks carried out at the UK’s airports.

In a revealing post-Brexit trade speech on 3 February, the Prime Minister said that Coronavirus would trigger “a desire for market segregation” that would go beyond “what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage” and “at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom”. Likening the UK to the comic-book hero Superman, he suggested that the country would be “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion”.

In these words, Johnson brazenly identified his preference for the economy and his libertarian instincts over saving lives. 

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Fudging the Figures

The Soviet Union cynically put the official Chernobyl death toll at 31. In reality, tens of thousands are likely to have died, with a disproportionate number of people in Ukraine and Belarus still being diagnosed with thyroid cancers and higher than average birth defects occurring in newborns. 

Likewise, Government figures for COVID-19 deaths do not reflect the true impact of the Coronavirus in the UK, under-estimating by tens of thousands. The figure for deaths provided only includes deaths of people who test positive for Coronavirus and is therefore “a poor measure of the overall death toll because it misses people who never had a test”, according to the BBC

Also missing are the graphs of international comparisons used by the Government in its daily briefings for the past seven weeks which have suddenly disappeared – a blatant ploy to blindfold the public as the country’s position in the world death toll rises.

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Liquidators who worked in reactor number three at Chernobyl in 1987. Photo: Valery Zufarov/Tass/PA Images

Endangered Heroes

Incredible human bravery at great personal cost stands at the centre of the Chernobyl story. On the night of the explosion, firefighters – wearing no protective equipment – worked amongst radioactive graphite for hours, exposing themselves to deadly levels of radiation. Their radiation-drenched clothes are still in the basement of the hospital in Pripyat where they were taken. Four hundred miners worked day and night to install a heat exchanger beneath the destroyed reactor to avert a bigger disaster – the conditions for which never even materialised. 600,000 people known as ‘liquidators’ risked their lives when conscripted to carry out a wide-ranging clean-up across the areas affected. 

In his investigation, Legasov found that the Soviet Union was ill-prepared for the disaster, with protective equipment, iodine tablets, radiation-detecting instruments and respirators all in short supply. 

In a memorable scene from Mazin’s television series – depicting real events – the Soviets ordered a robot from West Germany called ‘Joker’ to remove highly radioactive material from a roof near the destroyed reactor so that a sarcophagus could be built over it. Joker fell apart very soon after being placed on the roof as the Soviet Union had given West Germany its “propaganda number” for the radiation, rather than the real figure. With Joker gone, men were recruited to remove the rubble instead. Owing to the lethal levels of radiation, they were only allowed to spend 90 seconds on the roof each.

Smiling nurses wearing bin-bags will likely be one of the enduring images of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK. As in Soviet Ukraine, the Government did not have sufficient stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) for COVID-19. In the case of some hospitals, the Government counted one glove (rather than a pair) and items such as detergent as PPE, to make up its quotas. A number of the 400,000 surgical gowns hastily ordered from Turkey were deemed useless as they did not meet safety standards. 

Despite the shameful lack of PPE exposing health and care workers to high viral loads, they have continued to do their jobs, day in, day out. Hundreds of them have died for their work.

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Meaningless Measurements

The true level of radiation in the Chernobyl reactor building following the explosion was much higher than initially recorded. Dosimeters showed 0.001 roentgens per second of radiation – but this was also the highest level these dosimeters could record. In effect, it was an ‘off the scale’ reading and meaningless. But Aleksandr Akimov, the reactor crew chief, believed this showed that the reactor core was still intact and sent his men to try to pump water into the reactor. Many of them died within weeks, along with Akimov.

Desperately playing catch-up, Health Secretary Matt Hancock wildly insisted that 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day would be carried out in the UK by the end of April. The Government hit the figure on 30 April – by including 40,000 testing kits which had been sent out, rather than used. The target has been unmet consistently since then. With mass testing inexplicably abandoned early on, Hancock and his colleagues have no way of knowing who has had the virus, in any form, or what happened to them – rendering their updates on ‘new recorded cases’ meaningless. 200,000 tests a day have been promised by the end of May.

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Scapegoated Scientists 

Used and then abused by the Soviet state, Craig Mazin’s television series showed Valery Legasov to be a man of integrity caught in a political trap.

Experts in the UK seem to be stuck in one too, with Boris Johnson and his ministers constantly telling the public that they have “followed the science” at all times – rhetoric designed to blind us to the fact that advisors advise and politicians decide. 

“It is reminiscent of Stalinist Russia,” remarked Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, when the Government published some of the expert advice provided to it, but with criticism by advisors of the Government’s Coronavirus response redacted. Professor Neil Ferguson was another scientist, hunted and now caught. A member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) who warned that 250,000 people could die without a lockdown, he resigned after newspapers revealed that a woman had travelled to his house during lockdown.  


Institutional Evil

“In these kinds of circumstances, where great crimes are committed, it is remarkable to me how infrequently you can actually find somebody who is properly to blame,” says Craig Mazin.

Britain may not be the Soviet Union, but this lesson of Chernobyl speaks to our experience too.

While it might seem difficult not to simply blame the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus on Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, their political advisors and colleagues, this misses the institutional evils we live within and our collective role in what has unfolded. How, as a society, we have legitimised – or simply ignored – the creation of a system which places libertarian, market-driven ideology above lives; which allows the erosion of the rule of law; lets populist myths flourish; in which the derision of fact and expertise is encouraged; where an establishment media is in cahoots with ministers; minorities are scapegoated and inequalities lived with. A system in which lies no longer have consequences. 

He may sit at its heart, but the rot in our system does not begin or end with our Prime Minister. And, despite what we may like to think, none of us are neutral in our thoughts or actions. So searching questions must be asked – of societies, systems and ourselves.

“I’m not sure humans are equipped to move through existence without lying to each other, there’s a certain amount of lying that seems to be necessary or we just won’t be able to make it through,” Mazin believes. “It’s the big lies that we have to be really, really careful about because, in the end, the truth doesn’t care that we need to lie to each other to make it through the day, it just is and, in the case of something like Chernobyl, they lied and lied and lied and lied but always, always was this enormous tub full of incredibly dangerous elements that was ready to blow up if the proper conditions were met – that was always true.”

It is a very human instinct to deceive ourselves that it will never happen to us, that we live in a different type of society, that it doesn’t matter whether we vote in elections or not, that stability is inevitable. It is an understandable defence mechanism that ensures our day-to-day survival. But, the Coronavirus doesn’t care about our need for delusion. It is carrying on regardless. 

Mazin’s warning in Chernobyl is very close to the bone: that our lies can cost us our lives. And so, “if we are incapable of getting past some base level of lying, we must address the ones that we know are lies”.

When Aleksandr Akimov pressed the AZ-5 button on that fateful night at Chernobyl, he thought he was relying on the system’s ultimate defence mechanism. It turned out to be a form of attack. Our need for lies may help us get through the day, but eventually they will be confronted with a truth that has to be borne. T.S. Eliot was right, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Sometimes there is no option but to look it straight in the eye – lest we cause much greater harm than that which we desperately seek to shield ourselves from.


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