Lessons from Chernobyl
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The coronavirus is spreading across Korea with impressive speed. President Moon Jae-in appealed to the public for cooperation and trust in government measures against the outbreak as he elevated the national alert level to “serious” on Sunday. How can the government earn trust in the face of growing public disgruntlement? The 2019 U.S. television series “Chernobyl,” which was based on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, offers four key lessons.
1. Ditch the optimism
In the show, residents gather for a meeting shortly after the Chernobyl accident on April 26, 1986. In the meeting, someone says everyone should evacuate from the area. One elder person rises and urges others to calm down and trust the nation, saying that an evacuation order hasn’t been handed down yet.
He tries to convince everyone to concentrate on blocking the spread of disinformation, receiving a big round of applause from the others. The meeting ends — and with that consensus, the residents fall deeper into the abyss. The residents continue to refuse to acknowledge the explosion, and their meetings always wrap up on a positive note, only to make matters worse.
I’m not saying we should exaggerate fears. But often, it helps to see problems a bit more negatively than they actually are. On Feb. 13, President Moon sent the wrong signal to the public when he said the outbreak would “come to an end shortly.”
In the TV series, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is about to end an emergency meeting on the nuclear meltdown upon hearing that everything was under control, Valery Alekseyevich Legasov, a chemist, speaks out from the end of the table. Legasov candidly informs Gorbachev that a core meltdown has occurred in a reactor, displaying his scientific conviction despite much pressure to do otherwise. Legasov says, “To be a scientist is to be naïve. We are so focused on our search for the truth that we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it.”
The Blue House and ruling Democratic Party lawmakers should not control the situation room. They must give space to our best professionals and allow them to lead the way. All political calculations should be set aside — such as what to do about the April general elections or the diplomatic relationship with China. If politics get in the way, meetings will be saturated with feel-good lies.
3. Delegate authority and streamline reporting mechanisms
The arrogant and incompetent bureaucrats pictured in “Chernobyl” were only focused on reporting to the upper ranks. One relief was that Boris Shcherbina, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, backed Legasov and worked hard to manage field efforts for disaster relief. Shcherbina tells Legasov, “Of all the ministers and all the deputies — entire congregation of obedient fools, the [Kremlin] mistakenly sent the one good man. For God’s sake, Boris, you were the one who mattered the most.”
Not all bureaucrats are bad. But at times of national crises, reporting mechanisms should be simplified so that on-site workers can do their jobs on time. Even brilliant ideas are useless if they are not executed at the prime moments. Give authority to trusted workers and cut the red tape of bureaucracy.
4. Have faith in on-site workers
In “Chernobyl,” a corps of firefighters, miners and soldiers made selfless efforts to clean up after the nuclear disaster. As fears of groundwater contamination rose due to the leaks of radioactive materials, the Soviet minister of coal industry goes to a mine and tells the miners to get on a truck. They refuse to follow the order at first but relent upon hearing about their help needed to prevent pollution of a nearby river.
It is important to have faith in on-site efforts and candidly share the situation with the public. Communication starts by acknowledging one’s need of help and asking for it. First and foremost, one should never ignore the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it could be. The truth does not care about our needs or wants, the government or ideology, not even religion. It offers no mercy.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 25, Page 30