Essays

Is Coronavirus China’s Chernobyl?4 min read

Where similarities between the two disasters begin and end – Olivia Humphrey

Of all the images to hit the mainstream media over the past few weeks, some of the most arresting have featured Wuhan’s deserted streets during the coronavirus epidemic. These photographs take a city of eight million and reduce it to a ghost-town. In these still moments, it is hard not to think of another ghost-town – one that has actually been frozen in time, an ashy monument to a flailing communist superpower that mishandled a catastrophic crisis. For years, the empty factories, homes and schools of Pripyat were little more than a man-made playground for wildlife, tainted by plumes of plutonium. More recently, drones have been able to venture in. They have recorded beautiful and sad footage of what a town becomes when its people are suddenly wiped away: a ghostly observation wheel; a dodgem funfair ride overgrown with plants; a giant rusting hammer and sickle.

The Chernobyl-coronavirus analogy has not been lost on the media. Since the outbreak of the virus, and especially in February, journalists have pointed out parallels. First and foremost is the health toll, and how the damage proliferated. The radiation pollution that emitted from Ukraine in 1986 as a result of reactor 4’s meltdown nestled, quietly and terrifyingly, into millions of bodies. It is too early to tell the cost of coronavirus, but the fact that it also can spread silently, through people who are pre-symptomatic, gives it that same edge of phantom menace.

Another potential similarity is the “grotesque mismanagement,” in the words of one journalist, by the respective communist authorities. In the Chinese instance, Dr Li Wenliang raised the alarm in Hubei province only to be hushed by those scared by its implications and slow to act. He died from the virus in January, and has become the tragic face of this bungled first response. In China he has been compared to Valery Legasov, the Soviet investigator of the Chernobyl disaster who has re-entered the public consciousness courtesy of HBO’s celebrated mini-series. The eventual government-sanctioned actions also have invited comparisons, with Bloomberg’s Clara Ferreira Marquez noting that “much like in Chernobyl, where some 340,000 military personnel were ultimately mobilized to clean up the mess, China proved better at dramatic gestures, like locking down cities, than effective ones.”

At the same time, other expert voices have weighed in to express their scepticism about the implicit endgame of this analogy. That is to say: the virus might cause some short-term damage, but they doubt it will bring down the Chinese communist government, as Chernobyl arguably was a contributing factor to the disollution of the USSR five years later. As Princeton Professor Rory Truex recently expressed in the Atlantic, “for a cottage industry of Western experts, the fall of the CCP is always just one crisis away.” For Truex and others, the Soviet Union of the 1980s was far more fragile, politically and economically, than China is today. Just as Xi’s regime has absorbed blows in the past, it can take this hit. Another notable difference is that while Gorbachev’s hand was forced by the fact that radiation spread outside its own borders, Beijing crafted its message to the rest of the world on its own terms. That being said, in these more grounded circles there is some hope that reforms may follow the crisis, such as sweeping and much-needed public health reforms, even if they will not be potentially regime-ending.

Comparisons between China and the USSR are far from novel. “Could Xi Jingping be China’s Gorbachev?” was the optimistic question playing on the lips of western observers as the CCP General Secretary prepared to take office in 2012. China also sees the occasional utility in invoking such comparisons, albeit in a very different way to the western press that cranes its necks around tight corners in anticipation of the end of the road. Recently, a Chinese newspaper defended the brutal measures taken against the Uighur population with the triumphant claim that “Xinjiang has not become another Republic of Chechnya.” What the Anglophone media appears to be hoping for when they draw these comparisons is the end of the Communist regime in China, yet communist China continues not only to exist, but to thrive. For weeks, this was the thread that fundamentally connected the two events.

However, that thread is fraying. An ABC Australia article published last week adopted the coronavirus/Chernobyl analogy for its a punchy headline, only to pose a provocative question that inverted the standard narrative: “what if it turns out that an authoritarian regime is better equipped to handle the coronavirus emergency than liberal democracies?” If the best way to handle the virus is indeed to lockdown entire cities and geographical regions, could the West pull off a ghost-town like Wuhan? If the best way forward is to build new hospitals to house the infected, could any other country achieve what China did, and erect two in ten days? While it seems unlikely that this trend of inverting signifiers of doom into objects of envy will become mainstream, it is worth noting that as the virus spreads beyond China, the Chernobyl-Corona headlines have started to dry up. ∎

Header: Wuhan’s empty streets. (Youtube screenshot)