From Chernobyl to Covid

BY EFFIE DEANS

We are in the midst of one of the greatest disasters of modern times. It may be a natural disaster, or it may have been caused by human error. It is crucial that we learn from previous disasters.

It is partly for this reason that I began watching the 2019 TV series on Chernobyl. I accept that it is drama and that not everything portrayed was exactly as it happened. But the parallels with the present crisis are striking and useful.

The initial reaction of those working at the power plant and the Soviet authorities was to avoid blame, pass the buck and deny that anything serious had happened. News was suppressed and initially Communist politics got in the way of those attempting to solve the problem. The Soviet Union strove to prevent anyone in the outside world finding out even though the spread of radiation from Chernobyl affected other places because the wind knows no boundaries.

The history of Communist China is that of a country that imitated the Soviet Union. While it has diverged from Communism since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping it has continued to imitate its Soviet mentor in terms of secrecy, security and selfishness.

We may eventually discover the cause of the Covid 19 outbreak, or else we may discover that the Chinese authorities have successfully suppressed or destroyed the incriminating evidence. But we know already that we cannot trust the Chinese Government and cannot believe anything they say. It may be that the long-term Chinese failure to close markets with live animals caused an animal virus to become a human virus. Alternatively, it may be that a Chinese laboratory that was studying such viruses somehow leaked it.

It might have been possible to stop Covid 19 spreading, but the Chinese chose to deny there was a problem, repress anyone who said otherwise and quite possibly bullied the World Health Organisation into agreeing with them. The Chinese pleaded with the world to continue allowing Chinese people to fly all around the world even when they must have known that they were spreading disease just like Chernobyl had spread radiation.

Chernobyl showed humanity at its worst, but also at its best. The key was that various people who understood nuclear reactors and nuclear physics realised that they were faced with a potential disaster of an unimaginable scale. It would have been much worse, if nothing had been done. If scientists had not understood what would happen if the reactor were allowed to keep burning out of control, then large chunks of Europe might have become uninhabitable. This didn’t happen because the Soviet authorities grasped the scale of the problem and then did what was necessary.

Covid 19 has already killed many more people than Chernobyl. But it will kill far fewer than it might have done because scientists told Governments what would happen if they did nothing and Governments did what was necessary.

Doctors and nurses in Soviet hospitals treated patients with illnesses due to radiation with cloth masks and ordinary gowns and hats. The fire fighters who took on the blaze had no special equipment. The helicopter pilots, the soldiers and the miners wore ordinary uniforms and sometimes wore nothing at all because the working conditions were so hot. They understood that they were exposing themselves to deadly radiation, but they did what was needed to be done for the greater good of their own people and the wider world.

This is something that we have forgotten in Britain. In an ideal world the doctors and nurses who treated the victims of Chernobyl would have been wearing Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) that would have completely protected them from radiation. But it wasn’t available. They continued treating anyway and some of them no doubt died or had shortened lives because of this.

When we are faced with unprecedented disaster, we have to do what is necessary even if we have to risk our lives in doing so. Nurses and doctors treating the infectious diseases of the past understood this. It was their vocation.

The present debate about PPE is childish and shows how far we have moved away from previous generations. When poison gas was first released in World War One soldiers didn’t have gas masks. They improvised. Later primitive gas masks were supplied, and later still improved versions were invented, and eventually mass produced. But these soldiers still had to man their trenches even when their equipment was less than ideal. They didn’t even have helmets initially, because no one had planned for such a war, because no one had imagined it could be possible.

We are all going to have to be grown up about the risks we are going to face in the next few months and years. We are not going to be able to eliminate completely the risk of being infected. Some of us are going to have to face more risk than others. But remember it is not doctors, nurses or any of the rest of us who will face the greatest risk. Those at greatest risk are the over eighties who have no PPE at all.

We are all going to have to do what is necessary to save our country and its economy from the greatest disaster to hit it for decades. We must all do what is necessary. It will soon be necessary for us to return to work. We must do this even if there is a small risk that it kills us.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here. 

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