By: Yvonne Marie Antonoglou, Senior Fellow
Recently, the World Health Organization and other sensitive souls have instructed the media (and the West in general) to stop referring to the new strain of coronavirus as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” flu because of the racist connotations that this may entail.
It is common practice to often name diseases after the people who first described the condition -Asperger’s syndrome after Hans Asperger, Parkinson’s disease after James Parkinson, Alzheimer's disease after Alois Alzheimer, and so on. Relatedly, naming viral diseases after a population or the site of their first major outbreak is also a customary modus operandi; West Nile Virus, Guinea Worm, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ebola etc. Admittedly, viruses “come” from someplace, after all, thus people tend to gravitate towards disease-naming structures, which reference place names; on this note, I doubt we came up with “Lyme disease” because of some deep animosity towards Connecticut. Not to mention that “COVID-19” or “H1N1” do not exactly roll off the tongue. The latter was, until very recently, widely referred to as the “Spanish flu,” the world's worst pandemic on record, killing an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide. The term “Spanish flu” has now retroactively fallen into disfavor as well, and to be fair there is some historical evidence that suggests that the virus may have actually originated in France or…China, but tracing the origins of another deadly virus back to China (!) is rather unfashionable right now. Spanish it is, then.
It is no secret that the Chinese government has been far more effective in stopping the spread of information about the coronavirus than in stopping the spread of the coronavirus itself. It was recently revealed that government officials destroyed samples and suppressed vital information that could have helped mitigate the impact of this new strain of coronavirus. The government reportedly silenced doctors who warned about the disease. Some were censured for “spreading falsehoods” or sharing test results with colleagues, and some were forced to write apology letters admitting that they ‘disrupted the social order’. Then again, the practice of punishing whoever reveals embarrassing truths has been the order of the day since at least the time of Confucius, in the sixth century B.C. and is an effective means of coercing stability in China. Now, however, muzzling the messenger has helped spread the deadly COVID-19, which has infected some 75,000 people.
But why did both SARS and the current epidemic break out in China? Well, eating game animals has a long history in China and supports a massive industry that has been encouraged by the state as a source of income for poverty-affected areas. Until January, breeding exotic animals had been a thriving business. Additionally, in recent years, the consumption of wild animals had also become associated with higher social status and wealth. For years, the Chinese government encouraged the commercial use of wild animals, promoting the practice as a way to “accelerate the growth of farming”. So, as news of the Wuhan virus spread online, videos showing Asian people eating bat soup started circulating widely on social networks, with captions suggesting that eating bats was a possible source of the Chinese coronavirus outbreak. A specific video showing a young Chinese woman, supposedly in Wuhan, biting into a virtually whole bat as she held the creature up with chopsticks soon became viral and thousands of Twitter users blamed the supposedly “dirty” Chinese eating habits -in particular the consumption of
wildlife- for the outbreak. Nonetheless, it was later revealed that the video was not set in Wuhan at all, where bat isn’t a delicacy. It wasn’t even from China. Instead it showed Wang Mengyun, the host of an online travel show, eating a dish in Palau, a Pacific island nation.
Unsurprisingly, at a time of heightened fear over a viral pandemic, images of Chinese people or other Asians eating insects, snakes, or mice made clickbait headlines, effectively re-introducing the old narrative that the Chinese and their so-called ‘disgusting’ eating habits were at the epicenter of the virus. Indeed, scientists suspect, but have not proven, that the new coronavirus passed to humans from bats via pangolins, a small ant-eating mammal whose scales are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Wet markets where live animals are sold, mostly for medicine or food, still exist in most Chinese cities, and the Huanan Seafood Market was originally believed to be the source of this outbreak. China temporarily shut down all such markets in January, warning that eating wild animals posed a threat to public health and safety.
Generally speaking, many Chinese people would probably gourmandize dishes that most Westerners would consider unusual if not repulsive, but our dietary cultures and what kind of animals they include vary a lot and are quite arbitrary. Vegetarianism is ethically congruent but deploring the eating of dogs, while feasting on amiable pigs, isn’t really. And it goes both ways: A lot of East Asians, for instance, find the taste of lamb revolting. Dietary habits are as broad inside China as they are outside; the Cantonese habit of eating “everything with four legs save the table and everything that flies but the airplane” is a standing joke in the rest of the country. Now, when it comes to the much-dreaded Covid-19, it is not what is being eaten that matters as much as the poorly regulated conditions of China’s wet markets i.e. workers inadequately trained on public health management or food safety standards, the lack of hygienic practices and barriers at markets, and the absence or bribing of regulators and health inspectors. The H1N1 virus, after all, started not in any rare, uncommon species, but in pigs.
Actually, what lies beneath all that is a deeply-engraved cultural imperative; many wild animals in China are killed not for culinary reasons but due to folklorish or esoteric beliefs. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the premise that certain foods have healing powers, a notion that encourages some hazardous habits. There is, for instance, the concept of jinbu, which roughly means ‘nourishing by taking in (food)’. This holistic theory rests on the assumption that food is not only fuel, but medicine for the body. Well-known kinds of jinbu include tiger bones for ulcers, typhoid, dysentery, burns etc; dried pangolin scales are used to treat malarial fever and deafness, while gallbladders and bile harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; bats, which are thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, are believed to be able to cure eye diseases -especially the animals’ granular feces. Recent field studies suggested that masked palm civets (a mammal native to Asia and Africa) might have served as intermediate hosts between bats and humans. When stewed with snake meat, apparently, palm civets are said to cure insomnia. As a matter of fact, in many people’s eyes, animals are living for man, not sharing the earth with man. It is also thought that animals killed just before serving are more “jinbu” potent, which is one reason the more exotic offerings in wet markets tend to be sold alive (“wet” because the meat sold was only recently slaughtered, which also makes it more virus-friendly). To top it all, the government has been heavily promoting traditional Chinese medicine, especially under President Xi Jinping’s new nationalistic
undercurrent, and while officially pharmaceutical companies following this model eschew the wildlife trade, these beliefs have become firmly embedded in the Chinese collective consciousness.
Nevertheless, these practices are not legion across China. Nor are they uniquely Chinese. But the avian influenza was likely transmitted to humans from chickens in a “wet” market, too. Scientists have been warning for years that the eating of exotic animals in southern China “is a time bomb.” The Chinese government is perfectly capable of enforcing policies in wet markets to make sure that there is no food safety risk (and by extension that it is not killing everyone in the world with preventable zoonotic diseases); but is it truly willing?
If the fallout from the Wuhan outbreak changes anything for the better, it may be that it gives a push towards reform and streamlining of the control and management of wet markets. Unified management, along with thorough hygiene and regulation standards could also help prevent the next catastrophe. But as with so many past disasters in China, it could also mean a brief period of change before profitability and entrenched interests take precedence once again. Nonetheless, it is necessary to investigate the real causes behind this deadly epidemic, whatever their nature -because if we don’t, we will only be inviting the next one; and soon.
Yvonne Marie Antonoglou is a Senior Fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy, a Washington, D.C. based think tank. The Gold Institute actively engages in the discussion of foreign policy and defense concerns by those who have not only thought deeply about them, but who have actively participated in efforts to affect them. By providing both coherent thoughts, and recommended actions to address various issues, the Gold Institute aims to bring real solutions to real problems in real time