Thursday, January 21, 2021 -
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Our Chernobyl

There’s a great scene in the series I just finished watching, “Deutschland 86.”

A member of the East German foreign intelligence discovers high levels of radiation everywhere around him. Soviet representatives are called in, who reassure the East Germans that there has been no nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. Their radiation-detection device is merely outdated. The East Germans will be supplied with cutting-edge Soviet technology.

As the Soviets repeat their denial, a secretary comes with a bulletin from Moscow acknowledging the accident at Chernobyl.

It’s the kind of black humor that fills this series, a fun — albeit unrealistic — romp through the Cold War in the 1980s, specifically through the prism of the East German foreign intelligence.

A thought I’ve had over the past few months is whether COVID-19 is our generation’s Chernobyl. They’re both disasters that governments initially attempted to cover up. The full information about both disasters was (and in the case of the coronavirus continues to be) released in dribs and drabs. Leadership who could have prevented the disasters chose not to.

In the case of Chernobyl, Soviet authorities used less expensive — and less stable — materials to maximize nuclear energy production. The nuclear power plants were not immune to the culture of servility that personified the Soviet Union. So when problems were posed by lower level officials, top level officials, keen to fulfill quotas, ignored them.

In the case of COVID-19, a very similar pattern in China took place. I’m not even talking about the origin of the novel coronavirus, which for both ethical and scientific reasons must be uncovered. In China, doctors tried to sound the alarm only to be arrested and treated as traitors.

But it’s not only China. Leaders across the world, not least the World Health Organization, and including heads of government, were warned about the virus’ potential impact, but chose to let it unfold rather than take preventative action.

One might argue that coronavirus is organic while Chernobyl was man-made. But a different, early reaction to coronavirus could have significantly minimized its impact, both in terms of human life and economic life.

In both cases, it’s the hapless citizens who have to deal with the fallout.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at

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