Never before have we lived through a time where the circumstances we face are so unprecedented. The Spanish Flu over 100 years ago devastated the world with between 50-100 million deaths, forever casting a dark cloud over the history of civilization. Yet a century later, we find ourselves with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Given all which has since been sandwiched in those years, we find ourselves being challenged by the forces of human biology even with the great medical, social and technological advancements we have since made as mankind.
The virus started in China – but that doesn’t mean its Chinese?
Our friend across the pond, that strategic partner bound through the ‘special relationship’ has no problem calling this the “Chinese virus”. Let me make an analogy, when my brother got stressed when we were younger, he often developed acne over his face – too much information? Well, the equivalent is blaming the skin on his face for the acne. It’s a superficial weakness, but the real cause lies elsewhere.
From early understandings, it seems that this virus originated in a Chinese wet market – a lively busking place selling dead and live animals for human purchase and consumption. This type of environment provided an opportunity for such viruses (inc. SARS) to jump easily between animals and transmit into humans.
But to understand in detail why the emergence of such viruses have accelerate in recent decades, we have to understand the forces putting those viruses in our path. They are not cultural; they are political and economic. They have to do with the rise of industrial-scale farming in East Asia and the resulting marginalisation of millions of smallholder farmers. In order to survive, those farmers have moved into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk. The stars have aligned, and not in a good way.
It’s not just the industries that produce our food that are creating the conditions in which new diseases can emerge. Activates such as mining, road building and heavy construction through rapid urbanisation also are also contributing, and the profits from those industries are shared internationally across the globe. “We have created a global, human-dominated ecosystem that serves as a playground for the emergence and host-switching of animal viruses,” wrote Morens et al. The resulting diseases are suffered locally at first, as is reflected in their names – Ebola and Zika virus diseases and Bolivian hemorrhagic fever – but the irony is that some of them, such as HIV and Covid-19, go on to become global. It’s hard not to see a terrible natural justice in that.
The WHO in 2015 issued guidelines on how to name diseases, which stipulated that such names should not single out particular human populations, places, animals or food. Names that commit those sins often turn out to be wrong anyway, but by the time that becomes clear the damage has already been done. Gay-related immune deficiency or Grid, the first name given to Aids, stigmatised the gay community while stymying research into how the disease affected other groups. Trump’s labeling of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” is also unhelpful. At a time when the main centres of COVID-19 infection are outside China, and Americans and Europeans could be learning valuable lessons from the Chinese, he is exchanging insults with Chinese politicians who have accused him of racism.
We have our share of responsibility, as individuals, in the foods we choose to eat and the lifestyle choices we make generally. There are a lot of us on this planet and sustaining us is costly. But as has become increasingly clear, these industries have grown exponentially themselves from consumer choice; they’re driving it. We need leaders who understand that the treatment for this particular eruption cannot only be topical, it has to be systemic too. Globalisation has meant our world is ever more connected and integrated, these challenges and others need to be combatted on an international scale in various forms. The future is openness, connectivity and working together for the interest of our people – this could act as a reset button to those challenges. The current environment is beyond your ethical background, your religion or the badge on your passport. Start dialogue, work together, harness opportunity; not point fingers and blame a specific country for a pandemic in which other countries are not prepared to respond to adequately.
I don’t want to ramble on and make this into novel esce first blog, however, its apparent the British government initially had a different method aimed at dealing with this crisis compared to other nations. Our European friends took an aggressive approach from the outset, aiming to delay the spread of the virus as much as possible. However, Johnson has finally done it – but I ask, whatever side of politics we come from – lets put our partisanship aside and beat this poison. Its only in times of great collective perseverance that society moves past events such as this. So listen to the government advice, follow it, to the letter – each character with all your might. Yes, its tough, times are hard. But its only by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we do alone.