When I get stressed, a patch of annoying red eczema appears on the inside of my upper right arm. The doctor gives me some cream to rub on it, but I also know that to stop it coming back I have to deal with the underlying problem.
Too much information, you’re thinking, but let me make the analogy. The reason we shouldn’t call the Sars-CoV-2 virus causing global misery the “Chinese virus” is the same reason I shouldn’t blame my eczema on my upper arm: there is clearly a superficial weakness there, but the real cause lies elsewhere.
All the evidence gathered to date suggests that the now notorious Chinese “wet markets” – places selling live and dead animals for human consumption – provide an opportunity for coronaviruses to jump easily from animals to people. It happened with the Sars-CoV virus in 2002-3 – which was contained before it caused a pandemic – and it has happened again with its close relative, Sars-CoV-2.
But to understand why the emergence of such zoonoses – human infections of animal origin – has accelerated in recent decades, you have to understand the forces putting those viruses in our path. They are political and economic. They have to do with the rise of industrial-scale farming concerns in China 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, to channel bat viruses through intermediate mammalian hosts such as pangolins, and into humans.
Even so, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, the problem could still be regarded as uniquely Chinese. But there are two reasons why that’s not true. First, with the opening up of China, its agribusiness has ceased to be wholly Chinese-owned. It is a big recipient of foreign direct investment. Second, as the American pandemic expert, David Morens, and his colleagues pointed out last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, we’ve been watching a similar drama unfold over a much longer timescale with influenza – the disease that has caused more pandemics in the history of humanity than any other.
Flu viruses that infect animals, including poultry and pigs, have periodically spilled over into humans ever since we domesticated those animals millennia ago. But the factory farms that produce our food today ratchet up the virulence of those flu viruses just before they spill over. This ratcheting up has been documented in Europe, Australia and the US more than it has in poor or emerging economies, and it’s what gave rise to the last flu pandemic in 2009. The first cases of that pandemic were recorded in California, but nobody calls it the American flu – and it’s right that they don’t, if only because American farms aren’t wholly American-owned either. China, for one, has invested in them.
It’s not just the industries that produce our food that are creating the conditions in which new zoonoses emerge. Logging, mining, road-building and rapid urbanisation are also contributing, and the profits from those are shared internationally too. “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, to name just three – 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.
In 2015, the World Health Organization 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. President Trump’s labelling of Sars-CoV-2 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 and hinted – just as preposterously – that the US military brought the virus to China. The slanging match suits Trump, distracting from his mishandling of the epidemic at home, but it does the rest of us no favours.
That doesn’t mean China shouldn’t be held accountable for its shortcomings. Americans know where their weak points are – they include agricultural fairs, where pigs and humans come together – and they police them ferociously. Their infectious disease experts can detect a virus circulating in a herd and generate a vaccine to it within hours. The Chinese have got better at this lately. They now vaccinate their poultry flocks against a dangerous flu virus, H7N9, which first infected humans in 2013, for example. But nearly 20 years after Sars-CoV spilled over in a wet market, those places still appear to be a liability.
Controlling that animal-human interface is obviously important, but it shouldn’t blind us to the bigger problem, which is those globalised industries. Economists use the term “tragedy of the commons” to describe a shared resource – common grazing land, say – that is spoiled by individuals acting in their own self-interest. It has been applied to the climate crisis, but as University of British Columbia geographer Luke Bergmann and his colleagues have pointed out, it doesn’t quite fit what has happened here. In the case of these industries, it would be more accurate to say that they have excluded the nearly 8 billion of us who depend on the commons from participating in their governance. Yet we are bearing the costs of their industrial exploitation, in the form of pandemic disease.
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 decoupled themselves from consumer choice; they’re driving it rather than responding to it.
It’s time we took back the commons, which means voting for politicians who will hold those industries accountable, rather than ones who deflect the blame. We need leaders who understand that the treatment for this particular eruption cannot only be topical, it has to be systemic too.
o Laura Spinney is a science journalist, novelist and author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World