By now, we all know what coronavirus is: an infectious virus that attacks the respiratory system. This post is the first in a series about COVID-19 (a.k.a coronavirus), from its origins to the various ways it has affected our collective lives. In this series, members of the Ward lab will tackle topics such as globalization, equity and justice, and racism and their interactions with coronavirus.
By: Akilah Chatman
Akilah advocates for environmental justice with a focus on accessibility and equity.
This first post aims to be an introduction on the topic. I cover the effect of wildlife trafficking and bans, globalization and its impacts on public health, and the role independent media plays in crisis response. My goal in this post is for you to walk away with a better understanding of the factors and circumstances that caused coronavirus and what actions we should consider when facing similar challenges in the future.
So, how did COVID-19 spread to human populations?
Wildlife Trafficking and Regulation
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is believed to have originated in human populations, from a wildlife market in Wuhan, with possible animal sources being bats, snakes, and pangolins (Westcott 2020). While we are currently focusing on the Wuhan ‘wet market’, we must acknowledge that the consumption of animal products, often as an economic status symbol, always bears a risk of zoonotic disease transmission to human populations. We find wildlife markets throughout Asia, Africa, and South America. In North America, Australia, and Europe we commonly find people hunting wildlife for consumption. Even our industrial and backyard animal agricultural systems pose similar human health risks.
As a result of the Wuhan wildlife outbreak China placed a ban, in March, on the consumption and farming of wild animals in an effort to prevent another such outbreak. This is following a similar temporary ban from February on “terrestrial wildlife of important, ecological, scientific and social value” (Westcott 2020), that is expected to eventually become law in China. The reality of upholding these bans will come as a challenge as the use of wild animals has deep cultural ties to China. Similar past bans have been put into place for civets and snakes tied to the SARS-CoV-1 virus and its outbreak in 2003; however, they are still being eaten throughout China.
A significant exception within the new ban is the allowance of wild animal use for traditional Chinese medicine. With unclear policy aims of monitoring for safety and adherence, this exception opens a loophole for wildlife to be sold for medicine and then trafficked for consumption. And with the traditional medicine industry as a whole worth an estimated $130 billion, even President Xi Jinping is a supporter: “Traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people” (Westcott 2020).
Consumption of wildlife displays an elevated social status for the consumer in China, with a single peacock fetching 800 yuan or $144 (Westcott 2020). In 2017, the Chinese Academy of Engineering determined the value of China’s wildlife trade to be more than $73 billion and employing upwards of one million people. The onset of COVID-19 has resulted in the shutdown of 20,000 wildlife farms across China (Westcott 2020).
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been growing discord among citizens and academics alike on wildlife consumption. Nineteen academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other leading universities came together to issue a public statement demanding the end of the wildlife trade as a matter of public safety. A wildlife campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency, Aron White, said that most people in China react to the abuse of wildlife with anger and revulsion and it’s time to listen to the voices calling for change and support them (Westcott 2020).
Before the virus hit in December, China had already begun moving away from wildlife consumption. A 2012 study found that 52% of respondents and 80% of Beijing residents opposed the consumption of wildlife, as compared to surveys from 2004 where 42% of respondents opposed the consumption of wildlife (Westcott 2020) demonstrating a cultural shift among the general public.
Leo Poon, a Hong Kong virologist, says that the government has the choice to completely ban wildlife consumption or find compromises that uplift both culture and health. Completely banning something with thousands of years of culture behind it is a daunting task, but maybe the government can facilitate ways, with certain animals, to ensure the meat is safe to eat. The banning of it would likely just drive it to the black market (i.e. wildlife trafficking), making it an even higher safety risk. Any attempt to change culture to this degree and at such a rapid pace relies on the government to be intentional and consistent about enforcing the law.
To tackle the effects of COVID-19 and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future we need to get to the source of the problem, human behavior and consumption . Much of the early research on COVID-19 was modeled on the SARS outbreak in 2003. It was found that SARS spread to humans via an intermediate host as a result of urbanization and deforestation (Nabi et al. 2020). The land where animals live and forage is reduced and changed, causing evolving relationships between species, such as bats and civets. SARS was traced back to civet cats, an intermediate host for the virus, coming into closer contact with horseshoe bats, the virus reservoir. Naturally occuring animal populations are exposed to viruses that rarely impact the global human population so it is unclear how they will affect us until they do. While society views the land and the animals that live on it as things to be exploited for human gain, these are the sort of challenges we will continue to face.
Due to globalization and international travel, COVID-19 has spread much faster than previous novel viruses. The complications of managing disease transmission relative to travel is still front and center and demonstrated by continued border closures, highway signs promoting reduced travel and social distancing.
So, What does this mean for the future of globalization and the increased likelihood of new viruses developing?
As countries have done their best to protect their people, global cooperation has been waning. While globalization and travel have been at all time highs, countries’ responses have been increasingly more isolationist:
- China, who historically has been the largest manufacturer of medical masks in the world, has both increased production and drastically reduced exportation.
- The European Union has cut African nations off from supplies the EU typically funded.
- The Trump administration suspended transatlantic air travel without first consulting with our European allies.
- Hungary and Poland closed their borders, and Germany forbade exporting protective medical gear to Italy.
This increased national isolationism has created a system where countries around the world have been left to deal with these issues on their own. No one country can find a solution to this. We need to work collectively to draw from a diversity of thought and experience so that we CAN find real workable, sustainable and accessible solutions. When we turn our backs on one another we all fail.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross argues that a silver lining to the collapse of world trade is that it will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America, (a.k.a. isolationism) but the unfortunate truth of the matter is a walled-off world is a poorer world. The impact of canceled travel has disproportionate consequences around the world, from Southeast Asia and Latin America tourism based economies to canceling hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to visit Islam’s holiest sites. A world with closed borders is also a more suspicious world, with possible consequences of increased conflict. Yet, global cooperation would have been the key to a less deadly situation than we are currently facing now when we look to how the 2014 Ebola outbreak was handled. WHO declared the outbreak in March, the CDC deployed virus experts in July, and by September Ebola was mostly eradicated (Frum 2020). This feat was possible because of global understanding through free media. With COVID-19 there has been a mishandling of information that has been a primary factor reducing our ability to respond to this global pandemic. China withheld information which delayed response time worldwide. Similarly, the United States, that claims to be a global leader, has responded by questioning the need for masks, not sending out tests, and valuing the economy over lives resulting in disproportionate loss of life in minority, indigenous, and poor communities.
Free and Independent Media
China is a powerful country, and they used their authoritarian government to suppress the news of the outbreak. However, if in mid-December, at the beginning of Wuhan’s trouble, countries had banned together and worked with WHO, for example, to present a multilateral front, China may have been pressured to notify the rest of the world sooner. We see how a different approach, an approach of transparency, could yield a much less deadly outcome.
The reluctance of the Chinese government to make the rest of the world aware of coronavirus stemmed from wanting to protect the regime. If there was more free and independent media in China, the word would have gotten out earlier which would have enabled the rest of the world to prepare better and sooner. Yet it seems that more governments, such as the Trump administration, Russia, Suadia Arabia, Egypt, Philippines, Honduras, and more would like to use the pandemic to assert greater control over the media, potentially paving way for this situation to take place again and again (Dixon, Loveluck, & Taylor, 2020).
International cooperation, free and independent media, and respect of wildlife are the keys to a safer and healthier future for everyone. We can do better, and we MUST do better.
Breiman, O. (2020, March 27). The Covid-19 culprit is us, not pangolins. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/27/opinions/pangolin-coronavirus-pandemic-breiman/index.html
Dixon, R., Loveluck, L., & Taylor, A. (2020, April 05). Journalists threatened and detained as countries on multiple continents restrict coronavirus coverage. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/journalists-threatened-and-detained-as-countries-on-multiple-continents-restrict-coronavirus-coverage/2020/04/05/90d9953e-6eb7-11ea-a156-0048b62cdb51_story.html
Frum, D. (2020, March 27). The Coronavirus Is Demonstrating the Value of Globalization. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/dont-abandon-globalizationmake-it-better/608872/
Nabi, G., Siddique, R., Ali, A., & Khan, S. (2020). Preventing bat-born viral outbreaks in future using ecological interventions. Environmental Research, 185, 109460. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2020.109460
Westcott, B. (2020, March 06). China has banned eating wild animals after the coronavirus outbreak. Ending the trade will be hard. Retrieved March 24, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/05/asia/china-coronavirus-wildlife-consumption-ban-intl-hnk/index.html