This past month, I subscribed to the new streaming service called HBO Max. I did this for two reasons: to watch films made by Studio Ghibli, and to watch Chernobyl. Rest assured, we’ll discuss Studio Ghibli in the future. But tonight, I finished watching Chernobyl.
Chernobyl is a mini-series (5 episodes in total) which aired last year on HBO. It tells the true story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. It is supremely educational about the subject matter. As the show is based on a recent historical event, this blog will not shy away from spoilers (I don’t think you can really spoil history), so be warned about that. But I think you should watch this show whether you’ve read this blog or not.
I will issue a content warning to any younger or more sensitive readers. If you do consider watching this show, it is extremely adult. There is no sex, and not much violence. But it does feature profanity, blood, gore, and some full-frontal nudity (in a totally non-sexual context). This was done for a reason. It is meant to be a portrayal of real events, after all.
Chernobyl is a monumental achievement in television. It is brilliantly written, directed, and acted. The hair and make-up are quite possibly the best I’ve seen in my entire life. The sound and music are haunting/ The real gift of this show is the storytelling. This is a story about a disaster, yes, but it’s really a story about stories. That is what we have to talk about today.
This is the story of the explosion and subsequent meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Ukraine, which was ruled by the Soviet Union at the time. The accident at Chernobyl is nothing short of the greatest man-made ecological disaster in all of human history. It actually could have been much worse, but the bravery and diligence of good people mitigated the danger. This disaster was caused by incompetence and negligence.
I currently live in a country in which Donald Trump presides. We are facing a pandemic of immense proportions, the likes of which have not been seen in a hundred years. Well over 100,000 American citizens are dead because of this wretched disease, and we’re just getting started. No other country in the world has suffered at the hands of this disease like we have (although Brazil is giving us a run for our money). This uniquely American disaster was caused by incompetence and negligence.
As I watched Chernobyl over the last couple of nights, I was horrified. I was horrified by the incomprehensible magnitude of the disaster. I was mortified to see the nightmare that was unleashed upon the people of Ukraine. I was left further in shock at the extreme measures that had to be taken to keep the people safe. But perhaps what frightened me most was seeing the parallels between the events of the nuclear disaster and the pandemic-related news that I am witnessing every day in my own life.
Two years prior to the events of the disaster, a scientist wrote a paper. He discovered a flaw in the design of Soviet Nuclear Reactors. The USSR redacted it. It was not made public knowledge. The paper showed a flaw in something made by the Communist Party, and was therefore an indictment of the Party itself. This was unacceptable. So they buried the knowledge as the proverbial ostrich buries its head in the sand. If this paper had become common knowledge, it is possible that the flaw in the nuclear reactors would have been fixed. If they had not been fixed, it is possible that nuclear engineers who worked at these facilities would have learned of this flaw and acted in a way which prevented disaster. But image was everything.
Donald Trump first learned of the appearance of a novel coronavirus in January of this year. Nothing was done. He told the people that the virus wasn’t a threat. It would disappear, like a miracle. He tried to prevent American citizens from returning to the country after contracting COVID-19 on a cruise ship because that would increase our case counts, and he didn’t want numbers that would make him look bad.
In Chernobyl, people lied about the safety of a power plant in order to bring it online and earn medals from their government. For 3 years they struggled to prove that the plant could pass a basic safety test. In an act of desperation, they drove the plant right up to the breaking point, denying that there was any danger or risk to the world. And, they believed that they had a safety mechanism which would avert any disaster.
In my country, we held off reacting to the virus for a long time. Some estimates state that if the country had begun social distancing as much as 1 week earlier, tens of thousands of lives could have been spared.
When the plant reached the breaking point, the engineers pressed the button. It was a button which would shut everything down. Pushing this button caused the reactor to explode, because of the fatal flaw that the government hid from public view years earlier.
When the plant exploded, many rushed to the scene to provide aid. Many of these people died. The government cut off communication and kept everyone in the nearby town of Pripyat locked in the borders of their own city. They were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. It was many hours later before they were evacuated.
Many brave people were called upon to stop the flow of lethal radiation. Many were exposed themselves, and died. Of those who didn’t die quickly, many experienced health problems in the years to come, including cancer. People were sent to their deaths because if they didn’t do their jobs, millions more would die. Leaders had to make this decision.
In New York, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals were brought in from all over the country to help. Many were exposed to the virus. Some died. Throughout the country we’ve lost hundreds of healthcare workers to COVID-19. If they didn’t do their jobs, many more would have died. Leaders had to make this decision.
Hundreds of thousands of people helped to stop the nuclear disaster. We’ll never know how many people were actually killed by this accident, though it is likely in the tens of thousands.
The Communist regime of the USSR worked tirelessly to hide their mistakes from the world. Even now, the Russian government denies that Chernobyl as a story is accurate. They tell lies. Lies led to the disaster, and lies persist about it today which would keep us from learning the lessons of this story.
The president of my country has asked that we slow down our testing of the population for COVID-19. He says that if we test less, we’ll see smaller numbers of cases and everything will be better. He tells lies.
In 34 years, HBO will make a mini-series called COVID. It will detail the many failings of this country as we’ve struggled to contain the disease. We failed to learn the lessons that the story of Chernobyl had to teach us, and we are repeating the same mistakes. If we fail to learn the lessons of our country’s response to this pandemic, we will repeat the same mistakes. There will be deaths. There will be real human cost. It is crucial that we don’t let this happen.
I plead with you to learn the lessons that Chernobyl has to teach us. I beg the leaders of cities, states, and nations to remember this tragedy when they are faced with unprecedented problems. Listen to scientists and qualified experts. Tell the truth. Damn your pride. Forget about your politics. Place the value of human lives over your public image.