It would be years before I learned that an old school friend had called my mother from Kyiv to lament that we wouldn’t be able to come stay in the summer cottage we’d reserved. When my mother professed confusion, the friend whispered of something gone awry at a nuclear power station on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. As I sat watching Soviet cartoons, my father had his ear pressed to the battered casing of a shortwave radio that picked up a Voice of America signal. Nearly a week had passed since the nuclear catastrophe that would soon become infamous the world over, and we were just learning of a cloud turgid with radionuclides moving toward our city of about a million and a half utterly unsuspecting residents.
Chernobyl broke the Soviet spirit, which had been annealed by the defeat of Hitler in 1945. Four decades later, the battle for Berlin was less immediate than the battle for edible groceries. Once triumphant, we were now helpless. “This is the worst catastrophe of our times. I don't know what we can do,” one Russian admitted to legendary New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury. “Some Chernobyl personnel just ran away,” Salisbury reported. “Two months later, they were still missing.”
The comparison between Moscow in 1986 and Washington in 2020 is undeniably compelling, especially as spring blooms anxiously and the April 26 anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster arrives. “The coronavirus is Trump’s Chernobyl,” went the headline of a Washington Post op-ed. The creator of HBO’s superb miniseries on the disaster has made clear on Twitter that he thinks the comparison holds. So have many others.
Perhaps the coronavirus really will prove to be President Trump’s Chernobyl.
But it will not be ours.
Chernobyl made Soviet citizens realize that their leaders were liars and the country’s institutions were broken. It would be difficult for the coronavirus to achieve the same effect in the United States, if only because so many Americans already hold that view of Washington. Short of knocking out Netflix, it’s hard to see how the coronavirus could deepen our collective cynicism.
This miserable pathogen has actually done the opposite, reminding us that we are not merely consumers wandering the same late-capitalist hellscape. For the first time in decades, we feel our nationhood, feel it more deeply even than we did after Sept. 11, when the profusion of American flags disguised (but also revealed) ideological rifts about our superpower status.
Ironically, an invisible virus has proven a much more immediate and universal threat than two passenger jets slamming into the World Trade Center. The disease has hit some states much harder than others. And it has been especially brutal on African Americans. But it has spared no one and, in doing so, has managed to unite us, however tenuously and fleetingly.
Our motto, for now, is E pluribus covid.
Americans generally dislike thinking about national spirit. For some, the very idea summons spooky echoes of Hitler’s volksgemeinschaft. For others, it is a blindly zealous celebration of a past when racism and other forms of intolerance were accepted, even encouraged. Too often, it is the stuff of high school history teachers given to dull disquisitions on de Tocqueville.
I prefer to take counsel from Rebecca Solnit, who has written eloquently about the resilience of communities facing disaster. Despairing of Bush-Cheney belligerence, Solnit wrote a book called “Hope in the Dark” in 2004. A devout progressive, she described collective spirit as a radical, revolutionary force. In “moments of rupture,” Solnit wrote, “people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist.” Just when things seem most precarious, “that old dream of a just society reemerges.”
To invoke that old dream just now may seem downright delusional, with thousands dead and millions out of work. Lysol warning Americans not to ingest its cleaning products may indeed be a “moment of rupture,” but it’s probably not the kind constructive rupture Solnit had in mind. And cable news can make it seem like the pandemic is just another battleground on which Trump and his Democratic foes wage their endless war of attrition. Things are ugly out there, and they are only going to get uglier. For me, for you, for your favorite bakery, for your local zoo. Each day of reporting on the coronavirus pandemic for Yahoo News deposits me at the shores of nightfall as a castaway drenched in alarm and fright. I pour myself a bourbon and sit there, trying to make sense of a world I no longer recognize. Then I pour myself another bourbon.
None of this excuses the disastrous political judgments that have brought us here. But a nation is more than its politics, its spirit vastly more complex than what some exhausted speechwriter pounding away on a laptop in a West Wing cubicle can summon. To make this moment all about the man in the Oval Office is to give him precisely what he wants.
I was born and raised in a diseased nation, already ill before Chernobyl and in palliative care thereafter. As a certified hypochondriac, I devote impressive amounts of time worrying about corporeal and social ills alike (also, about asteroids). And yet the coronavirus pandemic has brought on a sensation I very rarely experience: optimism.
Don’t worry, I am just as jealous of Germany and South Korea as you are. In both of those countries, competent governmental responses saved lives and beat back the coronavirus onslaught. Meanwhile, here at home, the attacks on Asian Americans have been sickening, the right-wing challenges to social distancing measures dangerous and disturbing.
But while the nation watched protesters gather in Harrisburg, Pa., 200 miles west in Pittsburgh, an organization called Hello Neighbor raised $25,000 that it then distributed as microloans to Syrian refugees. I’ll leave it to you to guess which of the two developments ended up on cable news.
This nation does not meet its promise nearly as often as it should, and yet that promise somehow remains, a kind of Manifest Destiny of the spirit, a feeling that there is always something more ahead. It is this thrilling incompleteness that makes the United States so attractive to immigrants like me. If you were raised in Russia, if you were raised in Senegal or Italy or Vietnam, you likely felt that history was destiny. That’s why you came to Lower Manhattan, eastern Texas. There, you felt the future was gloriously unwritten.
For many right now, the future feels unwritten in less-than-glorious ways. The rash of gun purchases across the United States throughout February and March pointed to worries that the pandemic would cause institutions to collapse: While we cowered inside with our last shreds of toilet paper, violent mobs would prowl the streets (the racial subtext of such fears is almost too obvious to point out). The beleaguered south of Italy seemed to be where we were heading to this anxious and armed crowd.
Yet even as our political leaders make confounding and erroneous decisions — and not just our leaders in Washington — most Americans have abided by the strange new rules of life in a pandemic. Let the pundits speculate about how long we can keep going like this. And as they prattle on in the background, look out at the darkened landscape and you will glimpse, as I have, the “ironic points of light” that the poet W.H. Auden famously described at the onset of World War II.
Those lights inevitably keep flickering back to life, ignited by the people in Chicago who filled a sidewalk library kiosk with free food. People like Sara Abdel-Rahim, whose Tables Without Borders organization in Washington, D.C., has refugee chefs cooking meals from their native countries for the city’s needy. In New York, highly observant Jews who usually shun secular society — including even less religious Jews like myself — have been donating blood en masse, since the coronavirus swept early through their communities and many of them now have valuable antibodies others could use.
Widespread social disorder never materialized, suggesting that we may be a more cohesive society than Sean Hannity would have us believe. Crime has gone down in places like Washington, D.C. In our nook of the city, someone posted on a neighborhood social network about a sneaky “porch pirate” who had visited the night before. I let the video play, uneasily expecting evidence of package theft. Instead, a fox skipped carefree across the front porch.
And let us not forget Pornhub: Last month, the Internet pornography giant announced that it would make its premium service free to everyone around the world, in what a company executive called “an extra incentive to stay home and flatten the curve.” This might seem insignificant, until you consider that Pornhub is the 10th most popular website in the entire world, with 115 million visitors per day.
As far as affirmations of the national spirit go, I couldn’t think of a more perfectly American ménage à trois than this one of corporate generosity, sexual permissiveness and heroic lassitude. If the coronavirus pandemic is a war, and if staying at home is our greatest weapon, then Pornhub landed on Omaha Beach.
It is plain that Americans are organizing, without prodding from the government. This appears to validate the long-held conservative creed that individual initiative is always superior to policy issuing out of Washington. But the opposite is true: The coronavirus is shattering sacred nostrums about getting and spending only for yourself and your own. It has taken us many long decades — and then a brutally quick three months — to remember that we need each other, that compassion is not weakness, that strength in numbers is not about how many people attend a political rally.
All this should have been apparent without a pandemic. But so it goes. It has taken a microscopic pest to rouse this giant nation. We rise awkwardly, slowly, infuriatingly, haltingly. Sometimes we fall back down. Sometimes we just need a break from the Zoom conference calls, the mystifying presidential tweets, the ceaseless reminders about washing hands.
Still, we rise.