NEW YORK – Both disasters affected millions of people, well beyond their borders. Both occurred in tightly controlled, socialist, single-party states. Both were initially hushed up by zealous officials. The similarities between the current outbreak of novel coronavirus and a 1986 reactor meltdown aren’t lost on Chinese netizens, who have drawn unflattering parallels to Chernobyl in online discussions about a 2019 HBO miniseries on the disaster.
The political inference is clear: After all, the explosions in reactor No. 4 and the bungled aftermath helped unmuffle public debate and accelerate the decline of the Soviet regime. The comparison is flawed, though as Moscow’s grip was faltering well before radioactive debris rained down, but Beijing would still be wise to draw lessons from that catastrophe.
It’s hard to overstate the proportions of the disaster at Chernobyl, still the worst in civil nuclear history. The reactor’s flawed design meant that a technical test, poorly administered, triggered explosions that destroyed its core and released a cloud of radioactive smoke, dust and debris. Fires burned for days. A stifling culture of secrecy, political pressure to hit economic targets, and a simple disregard for human life caused a cataclysm on April 26, 1986.
There are certainly elements of that in the current crisis. China, of course, is not the Soviet Union of the 1980s. It has learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003, when a slow acknowledgement of the problem helped the pneumonia-like illness spread, eventually killing almost 800 people. Beijing has to contend with social media as well, however stifled. Yet early efforts to raise the alarm were silenced this time, too. Doctors in Wuhan were accused of spreading rumors and summoned by police.
Add to that a less-than-impressive immediate response, with slow diagnostic testing that, according to Reuters, required samples to go to Beijing. There is ample evidence of overcrowded hospitals, as my colleagues David Fickling and Adam Minter have written. As with Chernobyl, the local authorities — beginning with Wuhan’s mayor — have struggled in a system where orders must come from above, limiting their ability to inform the public.
According to the Lancet, the first known patient developed symptoms as early as Dec. 1. China alerted the World Health Organization by the end of the month. While the first death occurred in early January, full alarm and lockdown didn’t ensue until Jan. 23, days before the Lunar New Year holiday. By that point, millions of students, migrant workers and travelers had already left the city. Better than 2003, perhaps, but hardly exemplary. Much like in Chernobyl, where some 340,000 military personnel were ultimately mobilized to clean up the mess, China has proved better at dramatic gestures, like locking down cities, than effective ones.
As with radiation, the virus is both invisible and poorly understood, fueling public distrust at home and abroad. And as with the 1986 explosions, the impact of failings in China will be felt globally.
The comparison has its limits, though. The novel coronavirus epidemic is a crisis for public health, for the economy and even for Beijing’s upper ranks. That doesn’t make it a catalyst in the mold of Chernobyl.
One reason is simply economic. The meltdown has been described by many — including then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev, years later — as a turning point, the event that ultimately triggered the fall of the Iron Curtain. Reality is more complex. Soviet Russia was stagnating and in near-irreversible decline by 1986, when a sharp drop in oil prices left it desperately short of hard-currency earnings. Figures vary, but academic estimates put gross domestic product growth at less than 1 percent around that time; productivity was dismal. China’s economic expansion may be slowing, it’s still nowhere near this parlous state. A comparison with 2003 also suggests that consumption should bounce back, even if other, trade war-related drags on the economy remain.
Consider, too, the political differences. By 1986, Moscow was ready for a shake-up. Gorbachev had ascended to power a year earlier, and by the time of the accident had already spoken of the need for perestroika, or economic restructuring, and glasnost, roughly translated as openness. He nevertheless managed to use the Chernobyl incident to edge out old-school, Brezhnev-era politburo members like Vladimir Shcherbitsky, head of the Ukrainian Communist party. It was the excuse he needed to accelerate his plans.
There’s no evidence of such winds of change in Beijing, even if it’s noteworthy that officials are being placed in positions that make them potential lightning rods for public anger. Premier Li Keqiang is the head of the team in charge of containing the outbreak, not President Xi Jinping.
The biggest difference, however, is in the symbolism. Chernobyl battered the very essence of the Soviet state, an entire system built on a myth of outsize military and economic might. The catalog of irresponsibility, careless work and shoddy design at the Ukrainian plant dealt this image a hefty blow, from which it could not recover. It also battered the idea that limited openness would suffice. Moscow was forced to admit its problem because of radioactive readings in Sweden — Beijing has at least delivered its own message.
To get a sense of the impact, also consider that Soviet citizens had rarely been told of nuclear failings, however large and fatal. The accident at Mayak in the Urals in 1957, which forced thousands from their homes, was only reported abroad after a dissident scientist discussed it in the late 1970s. Earlier trouble at Chernobyl itself was covered up. The shockwaves were far greater as a result.
None of this should diminish the seriousness of the Wuhan crisis, which is still unfolding. To date, more than 360 people have died, and more than 14,000 have contracted the illness. It could get far worse. The timing is also dismal for China, as it comes to the end of a five-year plan with a cooling economy. Beijing, though, is well aware of the risk presented by unexpected events. It’s no accident that while cheery videos of doctors heading off to Wuhan have appeared, so too has some mild criticism, especially of local government — pressure valves, of sorts. Officials have turned to hefty fiscal stimulus in the past, and can do so again. Chernobyl should be a warning. Just don’t expect Beijing’s version of perestroika anytime soon.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering and environmental, social and governance issues.