The coronavirus is not a natural disaster but the outcome of a system of agriculture subordinating animal, and human, welfare.
Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) poses global challenges and many scientists are trying to develop vaccines for the disease. Beyond the importance of discovering a drug, one must understand why the virus has spread and learn from this to prevent epidemics erupting in the future.
The outbreak, as the science writer Brian Resnick concluded, is due to human behaviour. How so? Scientists and reporters in China explain that one must go back to 1970.
Famine in China
That year, there was a heavy famine in China, which resulted in more than 36 million people starving. The Communist Party administration, which controlled food production, failed miserably to save the people. As a result, in 1978 it relinquished exclusive control over agriculture and allowed private entrepreneurs to trade. The private sector began to grow.
While most farmers domesticated animals such as poultry, pigs and cows, as well as growing cereals and legumes, a smaller, richer sector began to hunt and domesticate wildlife, such as bats, turtles and snakes. At first it was very small, growing and trading wildlife only around the home. Although initially this was illegal, the Chinese government turned a blind eye because it contributed to the livelihood of those engaged in it, necessary during those years of crisis.
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Having come to realise the economic potential of selling wildlife, in 1988 the government changed the law, determining for the first time that wildlife was a ‘natural resource’ which one could therefore use for one’s own needs. This made wildlife trading increasingly interesting to the industry at the margin.
It soon became clear, however, that the decision was a precursor to the spread of new viruses. As the industry developed, in limited spaces huge markets emerged, selling a wide variety of animals: rhinos, wolves, mice, crocodiles, ducks and snakes, alongside pigs, chickens and more. Where there is a concentration of large animal populations, there is an opportunity for an animal disease to spread to other species and on to man—which is exactly what happened.
A market in Guangdong
In 2003, in a market in Guangdong province, the SARS virus (SARS-CoV) broke out, the source an Asian wild animal called the masked palm civet. The virus reached 71 countries, killing about 774 people. Following the outbreak, the Chinese government shunned the wildlife food industry.
Although its value was minimal for China’s overall gross domestic product, those who lost huge profits following the decision lobbied to allow the trade to recommence. The pressure told: a few months later, the government declared 54 wildlife species as legitimate to trade in once more. In 2016, more varieties were added, such as tigers and pangolins (scaly anteaters).
In 2019 the coronavirus erupted. This time, the virus has reached more than 80 countries and it has already killed more than 3,000 people. Scientists speculate that the source was probably a bat, which transmitted the virus to a pangolin, entering humans in the market in Wuhan.
What is common to the two markets in which the SARS and corona viruses erupted is the high concentration of different animal types in dense conditions, allowing the transmission of viruses from one to another. The interaction of the three (bat-pangolin-human) depends on close proximity. As Peter Li, a professor of animal trafficking in China, explained,‘The cages are stuffed with each other. The animals at the bottom are soaked in fluids. One after the other.’ This is exactly how viruses emerge.
After the coronavirus broke out, the administration again blocked the sale of wildlife. But organisations around the world are pushing the Chinese to repeal the law allowing it completely. Yet since the government halted the trade after the outbreak of the SARS virus only to relent under pressure, it will not necessarily take a different tack this time.
When Resnick asked Jonathan Epstein, a veterinarian and epidemiologist, why it’s important to understand the source of the virus, his answer was, obviously, to avoid repetition. To him, epidemics occur because of human activity—it is not the animals’ fault.
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Is the problem the sale of wildlife intrinsically or is it the living conditions of the animals? Probably both.
In other countries, animals also live under harsh conditions which cause disease outbreaks. For example, the source of swine flu which radiated from Mexico in 2009 was probably the town of La Gloria, east of Mexico City, where industrialised pig pens were located. Bird flu and the ‘mad cow’ disease which erupted in Britain can also be seen in this light.
The Chinese should not be judged for consuming animals others do not—there is really no difference between slaughtering tigers and cows or chickens. The main problem is the conditions, not the species.
The solution may thus be more liveable conditions for animals or indeed the cessation of the industrialised processing of animals. Instead of putting a ‘band-aid’ on the problem (vaccines), it must be addressed more fundamentally. If we, humans, treat animal welfare as a necessary thing—not only for animals but also for us—and insist that public health is more important than the wellbeing of wealthy industries, then the outbreak of such plagues can be prevented.
Animal welfare—human welfare. It is time to think about the implications of our actions for animals, not just in terms of morality but also health. And of course (but that’s another topic) the environment.
Michal Rotem is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science, Tel Aviv University, exploring the mutual influence of ideas from the natural and social sciences. She writes mainly about global warming, animal rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.