This is not a column about that book. The one by Bob Woodward.

I haven’t read it and probably won’t. I expect that I’ll get everything I need to know on my newsfeed as tapes and details drip out in the days until its official release on Tuesday. (Apparently, Woodward caught Trump in a lie. Weird.)

It’s not that I don’t like to read books. One of the few good things of the COVID era is that I’ve read more of them than usual, and at least until “Rage” showed up, the books available to me were written before the novel coronavirus was born. Almost by definition, picking up a book was an act of returning to the Before Time, taking a little vacation.

But, because of who I am and where we are in history, a lot of these books seem to be talking about COVID anyway.

The latest for me is “Midnight in Chernobyl: The untold story of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster” by Adam Higginbotham. Published in the pre-COVID world of 2019, it’s the story of an industrial accident that poisoned thousands of people more than 30 years ago. It’s also the story of a political chain reaction that began with a meltdown on April 25, 1986, and ended with the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991.

“For the final rulers of the USSR, the most destructive forces unleashed by the explosion of Reactor Number Four were not radiological but political and economic,” Higginbotham writes. Soviet leaders could not hide the radioactive cloud that was circling the globe, and eventually even Soviet citizens learned that the accident was a result of design flaws in the reactor that had caused other near disasters, which had been covered up. They also learned that the faulty reactors had been mass produced to keep up with irrational demands made by central planners in Moscow.


The cost of cleanup was enormous – equal to that year’s defense budget, involving hundreds of thousands of workers who were exposed to radiation. A city had to be abandoned and nuclear refugees resettled. The deaths are still being counted. Combined with the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Soviet economy was collapsing faster than Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms could save it.

What does that have to do with COVID?

The Chernobyl disaster exposed the weaknesses in the Soviet system: its cult of secrecy, the way it put politics over science, its cruelty and endemic corruption.

COVID, and perhaps to a greater extent climate change, expose the weaknesses in our system

We are a nation in a public health crisis without a national health system. We are in an environmental crisis that is still called a hoax by people in power. We are in an economic crisis that is being managed for the benefit of the already wealthy minority at the expense of everyone else.

As wildfires rage in the west and COVID deaths approach 200,000, we have no national strategy to mitigate or reverse the damage. Two-thirds of our national government is controlled by a party that tells people that climate treaties and mask mandates are for suckers, and that tax cuts pay for themselves. If the Republicans maintain control of the Senate and the White House in November we can be assured of more of the same. Is that when the problems just magically go away?


I’d like to think that we are more resilient than the Soviet Union. We, at least, have the ability to change course without collapsing the system and they did not.

Still, hearing what people said about Chernobyl had a weird resonance for me that was more disturbing than hearing President Trump brag to Bob Woodward about how his virus was the greatest virus ever.

Here’s what Gorbachev had to say in April 2006: “The nuclear  meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month … was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster and there is the very different era that has followed.”

I wonder if that’s what we’ll be saying about COVID in 20 years.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: