Radiation and Covid-19

Go Outside? No Thanks

In March/April 2020 the Nuclear Culture Research Group email list discussed some comparisons between the politics and aesthetics of radiation and the Covid-19 pandemic. The following notes draw on some of this discussion, but bring it up-to-date in terms of asymetrical effects.

The 'Go Outside? No thanks' image is an appropriation of the 'Nuclear Power No Thanks' Fonden logo which collapses the distance between Covid-19 and radiation, raising all the complexities of protest, protection and an existential threat.

For those of us working with nuclear discourses and materials, living and working with invisible contagion is part of everyday life. The tendency is that it becomes banal or fetishized, as we ricochet between denial and uncanny psychic fear. So it’s not surprising to see these patterns emerging in response to the coronavirus. Both the virus and radiation are invisible threats to human health and social fabric, and both take on the metaphor of the apocalypse, and prompt stockpiling. Although the reality is that for most people life continues in some shape of form, albeit impacted by the slow violence of contagion. Yet the infrastructures of post-colonisation are amplified by both nuclear testing and accidents, through the lack of protection or excessive exposure of certain groups of people. This ranges from the lack of protection for essential workers, to the exposure of indigenous communities and veterans at nuclear test sites.

As the pandemic has restricted travel, along with concerns about the climate crisis, nuclear researchers are questioning the need to travel to a ‘site’ for an ‘authentic’ experience, and the problematics of field research as yet another form of colonial tourism. Yet it is the failures of international dialogue which hindered the ability of Europe and America to learn from China's experience of Coronavirus quickly enough. And of course this debate takes place within a wide ranging set of risk perceptions, as well as the the histories of empire and collecting knowledge.

As the pandemic unfolds, it is very clear that we are not ‘all in this together’ as Black, African and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and key worker communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and radiation. When faced with virus exposure, self-isolation is simply not possible for key workers, including care workers, emergency services, refuse collectors, Dr's, nurses, teachers, cleaners. In terms of radiation exposure to testing and accidents, lowpaid workers, foot soldiers, indigenous communities, and down-winders are also disproportionately affected.

There are also health correlations as Covid-19 and radiation effects can be asymptomatic causing anxiety and suspicion. A delayed symptom response also means that it is very hard to trace, and to identify a strict causal link. Although much effort has gone into contact tracing, the UK failure to test people with symptoms for the first 3-4 months of the virus makes the state contact tracing fairly redundant. In both cases there is no cure, only palliative care. And in both cases there is an element of airbourne and surface contamination, where ‘staying indoors’ is a sensible way to avoid infection or contamination. The anxiety of touch-ness of Covid19 is also experienced with radioactive contamination, where dust is often the most significant hazard, with hand/clothes washing, cleaning, keeping windows closed, taking off shoes indoors, are all basic protection, most recently in Fukushima. Distance is also a basic principle of radiation protection, where the inverse square law means that each time you double the distance, you quarter the risk of recieving a dose from a specific source. Whilst the 2 meter distance rule for an airbourne virus might seem absolute in the markings on the post-office floor, of course the reality is a sliding scale of risk depending on weather you are indoors or outdoors, coughing or breathing normally, upwind or downwind, wearing a mask or not. It turns out that radiation and covid-19 do not affect all bodies in the same way, however whilst children are one of the most at risk groups in terms of radiation, they are less at risk of developing severe symptoms of the virus. In contrast Covid-19 spreads exponentially, whilst radiation can mutate DNA passed onto future generations.

The lack of state preparedness for emergencies such as a pandemic or potential nuclear attack or accident, is very apparent right now. In Europe there is a general attitude that disasters happen elsewhere, to countries with less stable environments, less robust health & safety, and less knowledge. This naïvety is endemic in most nation states. In both situations we see a failure of government to provide basic social care for everyone. The UK emphasis on top-down management and commercial market solutions, rather than rigorous governance and a responsibility of care has led to over 50,000 deaths (ONS) from Covid19 to date.

Solutions include good world-keeping along with re-valuing local practices of care: the need to strengthen global governance on the one hand (eg WHO, UN, UNESCO), and on the other hand - local engagement to give and recieve care on a personal and planetary level. Effective infrastructures have been provided by distributed testing in Germany, crowd sourced data such as Safecast and the COVID-ZOE symptom tracker in the UK, along with local governance and mutual aid. The virus shifts our perception of national risk away from nuclear military threat, and towards a nation state's capacity to care for its population, and the need for transparency in goverment. At this time nuclear weapons become increasingly untenable as a deterrent against any of our current threats, from biological or computer viruses, and the increasingly destructive impact of global warming.

Following the Fukushima meltdown, Safecast developed crowd sourced radiation monitoring in the exclusion zones to help people understand the safety and risks of their environment. Today they are giving human narrative to crowdsourced data of the Coronavirus, providing mapping tools which include personal narratives of individual experience that start to build locally specific profiles of the disease and the medical support available. https://safecast.org/

On the Nuclear Culture Research Group List, there are more nuanced references to aesthetics, but as the politics of the pandemic is moving so rapidly it's hard to tie them in with the current conditions.