There’s a gripping scene at the end of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries. Valery Legasov, a Soviet nuclear scientist sent to investigate the disaster, is testifying before the state.
Legasov, played by Jared Harris, cleans his glasses on his jacket. He then methodically walks the room through the sequence of events that culminated in the explosion. A series of human errors led to a situation that required a complete shut-down, initiated using a big red button called AZ-5. This button inserts all boron control rods into the reactor at once. It is a fail-safe, a last resort.
In Soviet reactors, however, the control rods are tipped with cheap graphite. This accelerates nuclear reactions, effectively turning Chernobyl into an atomic bomb. The pressure blew the cap off the reactor. Oxygen then rushed in and completed the explosion, blowing chunks of nuclear waste into the atmosphere.
“No one in the room that night knew the shut-down button could act as a detonator,” Legasov says. “They didn’t know, because the secret was kept from them. There are 16 reactors in the Soviet Union with the same fatal flaw.”
The presiding judge steps in. “Comrade Legasov, if you are implying that the Soviet state is somehow responsible for this, I must warn you that you are treading on dangerous ground.”
Legasov continues. “We are on dangerous ground right now because of our secrets and our lies. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it’s even there, but it is still there.”
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
That final sentence could not be more relevant. It first came back to mind during the bushfire crisis, when I used it to express frustration over the Australian government’s inability to acknowledge that the disaster was fuelled by anthropogenic climate change. That willingness to ignore science incurred a debt to the truth. The payment was made in Australian lives.
The same concept is now front of mind watching different countries respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Some, like Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, followed scientific advice and so far have avoided the worst possible outcomes. The US administration ignored scientific advice and Americans are now paying the highest price.
Take a look at this timeline, compiled by the Washington Post.
On January 3rd, the White House National Security Council is informed of the illness by the Centre for Disease Control. Around this time, intelligence officials began including the virus in Trump’s daily briefings.
On January 21st, the first US case is confirmed in Seattle. The next day Trumps says ‘we have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine.’ On January 30th, after more internal warnings, he says, ‘We think it’s going to have a very good ending.’ The next day he bans travel from China, but in the first week of February does not heed calls for emergency funding.
On February 19th, Trump repeats that it will ‘work out fine’. On the 24th, he says it is ‘under control’ and the ‘stock market looks good’.
The warnings mount from different sides. On February 28th, Trump says ‘it will disappear’. He eventually declares an emergency on March 13, two months after it was first brought to his attention. This willingness to ignore facts incurred a debt to the truth, and at the time of writing, that debt stands at 40,000 American lives. How many is too many?
The truth, as the saying goes, is inconvenient. It doesn’t go away or cease to exist. It is independent of human motives and opinions, an uncaring and unstoppable force that connects cause and effect.
Yet the slow degradation of American democracy seems to have confused people’s understandings of truth, news and opinion. This isn’t only Trump’s fault. It is also the fault of media organisations that do not clearly differentiate between news and the opinion of columnists with serious, circular profile pictures. It is the fault of a culture and framework of government that casts everything as a partisan political issue. Coronavirus, some said, was a ‘Democratic hoax’. When everything is an opinion or a political tactic, nothing is true.
The problem isn’t confined to America. The Australian government’s inability to acknowledge the link between our enormous coal exports, climate change and the catastrophic bushfire season is the product of treating the climate as an opinion.
But the truth doesn’t care what we call it. It can be buried under a mountain of wilful ignorance, incorrect assumptions and politicised opinions, but it exists regardless, unmoved and unmodified, building debt. “When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it’s even there, but it is still there.”
It is still there and so are its consequences. Graphite-tipped control rods cause nuclear detonations. Carbon emissions from burning coal create climactic conditions for larger bushfires. The novel coronavirus is contagious and kills 1-2.5 per cent of those infected. That’s not my opinion. It’s the truth. It doesn’t give a shit what I think.
Legasov’s lesson is that lies incur a debt to the truth. The lesson of this pandemic is that ignorance does too.