It will come as little surprise that Chernobyl is being namechecked when discussing Coronavirus. A quick Google search shows page after page describing Covid-19 as China’s Chernobyl, which is not a comparison that is made without reason.
Chernobyl is the classic study case for an environmental disaster spiralling into a political one. The initial response of China’s centralised, authoritarian system – much like the Soviet Union’s – has been lacklustre. There have been cover-up attempts by the state in both cases. But it is not a wholly valid comparison.
Many of you reading this will have watched Sky’s drama series Chernobyl and many will be familiar with Jared Harris’s series-stealing courtroom monologue. It begins with a simple statement: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
Here, in perhaps the finest opening line of any TV speech, lies the key difference between the two cases. The debt of Chernobyl has been paid. Once a cloud of radioactive gas passed over Scandinavia, the west was alerted and the story broke. Inside the USSR, nuclear safety policy was spearheaded to the front of the debate but, most importantly, trust in Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership was destroyed.
The need to rebuild trust was a key catalyst for the increased transparency of glasnost and, from there, the hastened demise of the Soviet Union. With its collapse, the debt was cleared. But unlike the USSR, it is not readily apparent that China is ready to service the debt incurred by Covid-19.
This newest threat to our existence is yet another testament to the dangers of central planning and obsessive government control. Dealing with this virus and its consequences in the short term is going to take an enormous effort from every member of our society. In the long term, it will mean forcing real change in China – and it may be up to the west to do it.
What the coronavirus shares with recent epidemics like Ebola, HIV, bird flu, swine flu and SARS is that it has been caused by transfer between human and animal. What it shares with swine flu and SARS, in particular, is that it has been incubated inside wet markets. These are often open-air markets selling live or fresh meat, with butchery often taking place on-site.
In a global economy as closely connected as ours, they are essentially an act of state-sponsored biological terrorism. The highly unsanitary conditions alone are dangerous enough, but the threat from them is increased thanks to the failures of China’s central planning.
Under Chairman Mao, state-controlled agricultural production failed miserably, with tens of millions of Chinese citizens starving to death. Even when levels recovered to match production before the Great Famine, they could not rise to match China’s increasing population, and this – combined with a continually stagnant economy – meant that food shortages became a staple of life.
Nothing defines life in a centralised economy as much as food shortages. In order to increase the production of all agricultural products and drive up the quality and quantity of food consumption, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, instituted China’s rural reform in 1978.
These reforms included moves to allow peasants to produce their own food, and there began a huge trade in ye wei (wild animals). With that, a lucrative trade in animals such as peacocks, civet cats, snakes, toads, porcupines, wild geese, rats, bats and even pangolins began, supplying not only meat for wet markets but also the Chinese market for traditional medicine, fur and leather.
This was not simply a by-product of legislation, but an economic activity that the government actively encourages to this day. Just weeks before the outbreak, the regulator for both farming and trade in Chinese wildlife, the state forestry and grassland administration was encouraging wildlife farming, include civet cats, which were an important carrier of SARS.
These wild animals are then bought into wet markets, where they are often sold alongside domestic animals. Both are usually available live or prepared. The farrago of living animals, exposed fresh meat and the excreta that is the natural byproduct of butchery and meat preparation make zoonotic transmission (the movement of viruses from animals to humans) far easier and more likely.
As the world economy has crashed and burned like a usurer in Dante’s Inferno, the National People’s Congress of China has outlawed wet markets and issued a ban on both the trade and consumption of non-aquatic wild animals. Breeding the animals, however, remains legal.
The wild animal farming industry was valued at £57bn in 2017, so it is a very profitable industry to simply stop. The combination of the economic incentive and history means that a vigilant eye must be kept on China’s clean-up. It closed wet markets after the SARS outbreak too, but these closures did not last long. They were quickly – and quietly – reopened.
Despite the lesson of Chernobyl that whistles sometime must be blown, China failed to institute change after SARS. It was likely viewed as a false start or too small a problem, so the state felt that it could continue as before. At the moment, it certainly appears that China is attempting to continue with the unbending arrogance that is the hallmark of most authoritarian regimes.
It silenced whistleblowers, withheld key information from local and international actors at critical points, and consistently played down the threat of the virus until it was too late. Since then, it has engaged in reputation laundering, mounted a diplomatic offensive, and criticised other nations for their response to the crisis.
But the thin gruel of propaganda will not satisfy this time around. After this is over, China must be forced to close its wet markets permanently and it must encourage behaviour change in Chinese consumers too. For them to resume unfettered access to world markets, particularly for agricultural goods, while wet markets continue to exist would be the worst deal since the bargain of Judas.