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Wed Feb 12, 2020, 01:11 AM

China's Chernobyl? The coronavirus outbreak leads to a loaded metaphor.

By Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post

Feb. 12, 2020



But for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the public health emergency is only the tip of the crisis. Before appearing in front of cameras on Monday at a Beijing clinic, Xi had been conspicuously absent, opting instead to let his deputies become the public face of the government response. According to sources cited by Reuters, Xi is panicked by the economic impact of the government’s efforts to contain the virus. China’s growth is already at its slowest in almost three decades; the outbreak has led to myriad factories and businesses temporarily shutting down, China’s real estate market taking a nose-dive and major global supply chains being disrupted.

“The coronavirus outbreak is on track to become the worst humanitarian and economic crisis of Xi’s tenure, but the Chinese president is certainly not likely to resign,” wrote Elizabeth Economy of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Still, she noted that, notwithstanding his years of ruthless, top-down, autocratic rule, “the epidemic has brought into sharp relief the extent of Xi’s power.”

Some analysts see the global risks posed by the outbreak, fueled in part by the initial missteps and secrecy of Chinese officials, and invoke a loaded metaphor: the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union. The meltdown of one of the plant’s main reactors triggered an explosion that killed dozens in the immediate aftermath and probably curtailed the lives of tens of thousands of others poisoned by leaked radiation. It exposed the failings of the opaque, autocratic Soviet system, which attempted at first to suppress knowledge of the incident. The disaster accelerated Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted reforms and is viewed, in hindsight, as a preamble to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The shared truths of Chernobyl and coronavirus are clear,” wrote Tom Roganof the Washington Examiner. “These are two terrible accidents, dramatically worsened by grotesque mismanagement and magnified by avoidable secondary injustices at the highest levels of the state.”


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