Deja vu. In recent days I’ve had that sense more than once. Every time I come home, remove my mask and wash my hands, I start thinking whether it is safe to keep on wearing the clothes that I had on outside. What if they are contaminated by the virus? Well, I can change clothes, but what if the particles have already jumped somewhere else, and are now in my home? Some would call it paranoia. I call it deja vu. I recognise those thoughts and remember the feelings.
That is because I first experienced them more than 30 years ago, in May 1986, on a trip to Kyiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine. It was a few weeks after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and I was in the city – about 100km from the disaster area – on a business trip. We already knew that there was radiation in the air. Water trucks were spraying the streets, foreign students were leaving the city, and overseas broadcasters like the BBC were telling us to stay inside. But our own government was sending confusing and distressing messages: there is absolutely no danger, but make sure you keep children inside, and pregnant women too. Oh, and close your windows when you are at home.
Then, as now, we were dealing with an invisible enemy, trying to figure out where particles that we could not see might go. Then, as now, the world had to deal with a man-made disaster; the inability of the government that had facilitated the disaster through neglect, not design, to undo it; and the world’s confused and inconsistent reaction to a catastrophe not of its making. Today, as in 1986, people are frightened and disoriented, trying to fight something that they can’t see, hear, touch or smell, even though it has already changed our lives.
What was true then still seems true today: disasters know no borders, no matter how many walls we try to build between us and the rest of the world. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, observers noted that it had made the iron curtain obsolete. Indeed, in the days after the explosion, the radioactive cloud moved not just beyond the USSR but even beyond the outer Soviet empire, passing across the eastern bloc into western Europe. It reached Scandinavia on 28 April 1986, two days after the explosion, and triggered alarms at a nuclear power plant near Uppsala, Sweden. The world learned about rising radiation levels from Stockholm before Moscow said anything.
From Chernobyl, radioactive rain carried unruly isotopes of strontium-90 and caesium-137, to name only two, not only to neighbouring Belarus and western Russia, or to Scandinavia, but also to the Balkans, Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and to parts of Wales, England and large areas of Scotland. The mighty Soviet Union could not control the clouds and ultimately lost control of the narrative as well.
Does that sound familiar? As it struggled to deal with a homegrown disaster that was becoming international, Beijing in 2019 closely resembled Moscow in 1986. Like Moscow’s terse initial report about the Chernobyl disaster, Beijing’s announcement about the outbreak of Covid-19 came late, was incomplete, and had all the hallmarks of a coverup. Like the Soviet Union responding to the Chernobyl explosion, China mobilised huge domestic resources and introduced draconian measures to deal with the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan. But neither of the two governments, which happened to be communist and authoritarian in different degrees, managed to stop the spread of the disaster and information about it beyond their borders. And the misleading reports and mismanagement then produced a backlash among foreign governments and the general public throughout the world.
China, which pretended to the status of world leader in matters of globalisation and climate change only a few months before the Wuhan disaster, has had its reputation damaged. It also faces trillion-dollar class-action lawsuits originating in the United States and calls for a billion dollars in reparations from Germany. However effective they are at mobilising resources to deal with disasters, authoritarian regimes turn out to be too effective for their own good in controlling information. Lack of freedom of speech helps to turn potential disasters into real ones and national tragedies into international cataclysms.
But as we try to contain the “fallout” of coronavirus, many are already asking what steps we might take to better prepare ourselves next time, and avoid the next tragedy taking the same trajectory. So far, the response has been almost exclusively nation-based. Borders have been closed and fingers pointed, not just at China but at international institutions as well. President Trump has suspended funding for the World Health Organization, blaming it, at least in part, for the failure to contain the virus. While temporary border closures have their practical purposes, national self-isolation accompanied by a blame game that undermines multilateral organisations is neither a way out of the current pandemic nor a template for dealing with future disasters.
Instead, the way forward, as demonstrated by lessons learned from Chernobyl, is through coordinated action. While some take aim at WHO for its cosy relationship with the Chinese government, it’s worth remembering that the the International Atomic Energy Agency, rightly criticised at the time for facilitating the Soviet coverup of Chernobyl, eventually became the instrument by which Moscow came clean about what happened. It led the international effort to open the Soviet nuclear industry to the world and helped to introduce safety standards behind the iron curtain. A number of international legal instruments to ensure that there is early warning of nuclear accidents were adopted in the aftermath of Chernobyl, as were various measures to heighten the safety of the nuclear industry. It is my personal conviction that without those measures we would have had further Chernobyl-type accidents in the former Soviet space.
Legal experts suggest that the lawsuits being prepared in the US will go nowhere, given the nature of international law and foreign governments’ liabilities under it. And one need not be an expert to realise that cutting funds to international institutions such as the WHO in today’s interconnected world is extremely damaging. On the contrary, we need to strengthen international institutions in their capacity to fight pandemics and provide the WHO with a stronger mandate to act in closed societies such as China.
The only effective responses to international disasters, no matter which state they occur in, are international. As the world’s reaction to Chernobyl showed, coordinated efforts can bring real change, making us all safer – whether we live in Beijing, Moscow, London or New York. That’s the kind of deja vu I’d like to be experiencing right now.
o Serhii Plokhy is professor of history at Harvard University and the author of Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy