I think of myself as a healthy person, but airborne contagion doesn’t care what I think, and it doesn’t care if I go to fitness class or run marathons. It’s an equal opportunity disrupter. A neurologist once told me that some people are more vulnerable to diseases of the central nervous system than others. He thought I was one of them because in my time on the planet I have uploaded viral meningitis, polymyalgia rheumatica, transient global amnesia, two episodes of myasthenia gravis, and what a pediatrician diagnosed as a mild case of polio. I’m lucky that they’re all in the rear-view mirror now.
Does that mean I have a good immune system or a weak one? Good question these days. Like all of you I’m sheltering at home, limiting my exposure to the outside world, washing my hands like Lady Macbeth, and hoping that dread viral bug doesn’t creep in with the morning paper.
One of my distractions while waiting it out has been to watch the HBO series, Chernobyl. Not exactly uplifting considering the deadly invisible threat outside my window, but I see fascinating parallels between the Soviet nuclear disaster and coronavirus.
My fascination with Chernobyl began on April 27, 1986. I was the co-pilot on Pan Am’s inaugural flight from Frankfurt to Stockholm that day. It was a big deal. New York mayor John Lindsey and former world heavyweight champions Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson were on their way to Stockholm for a reunion celebration of their famous fight, and we were met on arrival by Stockholm’s mayor and other dignitaries.
In Frankfurt, as we were briefing for the flight, Operations told us that there had been an accident at the nuclear facility at Chernobyl, Ukraine, and it was emitting a radioactive cloud. Our flight path might take us near it. We didn’t know exactly what that meant but it didn’t sound good. Nevertheless, we flew to Stockholm, spent the night and flew back to Frankfurt the following day. After landing in Frankfurt, the skin of the airplane was checked for radiation and what was determined to be an acceptable level was detected. Two weeks later, I woke up with double vision, muscle weakness and the myasthenia gravis that ended my flying career.
I have doctor friends who think Chernobyl radiation triggered my disease but there has never been a study as far as I know. Last year, I wrote a blog on the 30th anniversary of the accident and a few weeks later I received an email from a British actress who was performing in Stockholm when Chernobyl blew. I don’t know how she found my blog, but she wanted me to know that she had also contracted myasthenia gravis within weeks of the disaster. Small world. Now we correspond regularly.
One reason Chernobyl interests me today is that I see striking parallels between it and the Covid-19 contagion. There are obvious differences. Chernobyl exploded because of faulty engineering and cheap construction, while the virus is a biological mutation thought to have passed from infected bats to humans in the Wuhan market. Nevertheless, both crises were bungled and thousands could have been saved if only there had been timely interventions by the Russian, Chinese, and American leaders called on to respond.
Both events are catastrophic. Chernobyl’s sudden explosion cast its skin-blistering, organ-destroying radioactivity across Eastern Europe, while Covid-19 stealthily cast its lung-choking little bug around the world. In the aftermath, both governments (Russian and Chinese) reacted by withholding important information about the danger. Official government statements (Russian, Chinese, and American) boasted that the situations were “contained.” Government officials assured their respective citizens that everything was under control.
None of these three governments was prepared to deal with a catastrophic event. We used to mock the Russians and Chinese for the quality of their products and their heavy-handed approach to social problems, but America was also woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The Chernobyl explosion was caused by faulty engineering, cheap construction, and the absence of “fail safe” backups. The Chinese government had no public health measures in place when the virus appeared and could not assure its citizens that their public markets were safe. America even after the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Hurricane Katrina ignored the prospect of a pandemic, disbanded the National Security Council’s Pandemic Response Unit, and failed to replenish the government’s stockpile of emergency PPE (personal protective equipment).
In both crises, when scientists attempted to advise and inform, they were silenced or ignored. In Russia, the Central Committee refused to admit the truth for fear it would embarrass the government and alarm the population. In China, Dr. Lin, a Wuhan physician tried to warn the government but was silenced, punished, and ultimately killed by the virus. The delay cost them precious time in controlling the Wuhan spread. In America, though on notice from China, the World Health Organization, and one of his top advisors, President Trump played down the Covid-19 danger for two months before acknowledging the problem and implementing containment strategies.
By the time the severity of these events was finally accepted, after long delays in government action, both emergencies had reached catastrophic levels. High radioactivity levels extended 200km in all directions from Chernobyl. By the time Chinese authorities accepted the true situation and acted to quarantine Wuhan and Hubei province, thousands were dead and the virus was migrating around the world.
In November 2019 the Federal Advisory Committee of the Department of Defense warned the White House of the appearance of a virulent virus in Wuhan China that could threaten the US, and on December 31, 2019, the US was advised by the World Health Organization that Covid-19 had the potential to be a worldwide pandemic. But, despite these warnings and the January lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei Province, President Trump’s only action was to limit flights from China (though some 430,000 people did enter the US after his embargo). In February and most of March he did nothing to address the prospect and continued to diminish the threat even when the first cases and deaths were appearing in Washington state.
Even though Chernobyl involved an explosion and nuclear meltdown, the real dangers posed there and by Covid-19 were the invisible. Neither could be seen. Only through testing could a true assessment of the risk be made. Wind, rain, border crossings, cruise ships, and international travel all contributed to the spread of radioactivity and the invisible virus. Containment and mitigation depend on immediate action. Geographic areas needed to be evacuated or quarantined. Time was of the essence, but authorities in all three countries were all slow to respond.
The Chernobyl and Covid-19 emergencies are egregious examples of the failure of leadership. Russian bureaucrats blamed low-level operators at the nuclear plant. The Chinese ignored Dr. Lin’s warning and allowed the virus to spread throughout the province. All three countries tried to shift the blame by firing whistleblower troublemakers.
The American response is particularly distressing. As in any war, leadership is the key to victory, and the US had none even though the infrastructure, blueprint, and tools were there to limit the damage. The Obama administration briefed the incoming Trump team on pandemic preparation and presented them with a 69-page response plan. It also had in place an established Pandemic Response Team within the National Security Agency, and recommended replenishing FEMA’s national stockpile of emergency preparedness supplies. Trump ignored the plan, disbanded the response team, and failed to replenish the stockpile.
Nevertheless, he still could have managed the crisis by establishing a national plan, appointing a logistics czar and implementing a plan under the authority of the Defense Procurement Act. He could have ordered American companies to manufacture and distribute needed supplies – testing kits, personal protective equipment, medicines, and ventilators – to the distressed areas on an as needed basis. Instead, he invoked the Act in a limited way and failed to implement a national plan.
Trump then thrust the responsibility onto the governors of the affected states, blaming them (especially the Democratic governors) for the chaos and consequent failure to contain the crisis. Then, looking for still more scapegoats, he blamed (in order) Obama, China, Congress, the media, and the World Health Organization for bringing on the virus. The WHO he blamed for limiting his ability to act quickly, for telling lies about his performance, and for being an expensive, left-leaning, do-nothing globalist organization.
Today, thanks to the action of Governors Cuomo, Newsom, and Inslee, the states most effected are managing the contagion but without needed supplies and federal support. Emergency rooms, and temporary facilities are overwhelmed but managing because first responders and health professionals are risking their lives even without the appropriate protective wear.
Donald Trump did not cause the coronavirus problem. He mismanaged it and endangered American lives by winging it without plan. America has military, business, and political leaders with the intelligence, experience, and skills to manage a crisis, but Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Jared Kushner are not among them.
The Chernobyl film ends with the blame-shifting Russian show trial. Valery Legasov, the head scientist and truth teller, says “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them.” But it did. Now, unfortunately it’s happening to us.
Every day we hear that life will never be “normal” again. I’m nearing the end of my life, but I’m trying to imagine what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. I only hope capable visionaries emerge to restore our democracy and give Americans back the country they need and deserve.
Chernobyl was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. It brought to light all that was wrong with that system. Today, Americans are staring down a crisis, not just Covid-19, but a crisis in leadership. We have an election, maybe the most important election in our history, coming up in November. Please vote. Please have faith in the system. It’s the only way we can repair the damage that’s been done in the last four years.
Jack Bernard is a Seattle resident, author, travel writer, and retired pilot.