The recent outbreak of COVID-19 set me thinking about human-animal disease cycles. This is a problem as old as human communities.
About 12,000 years ago, human beings began the long process of moving towards collective living in villages. It took a long time, perhaps 4,000 years, and entailed the slow domestication of animals and plants. During this period, hunting remained a crucial feature in human food supply – what we now call ‘game’ meat. Why so long? Domestication takes some effort: originally wild animals need to mutate, through restriction of movement, controlled breeding, regulation of feeding, and extension of lactation. The first animals – in Asia, which usually leads human development – were what we now know as domesticated sheep and goats. In the process of mutation, wool became longer and more amenable to human use (by selective breeding through which plucking during annual moulting gave way to non-moulting wool that could be shorn), and the animals became smaller than their wild relatives. Meanwhile, hunting of the gazelle, onager, aurochs, hare, fox, and wild sheep and goats continued for a long time alongside the herding of domesticated animals, but the shift had been made.
However, this process of collective and semi-settled living and domestication of animals (and plants) also brought with it a whole series of new diseases. Why? Many diseases require different hosts for their life cycles, and with human beings and animals living in close proximity, humans became more and more part of the cycles. To be sure, this was already the case with the hunting of wild animals, in which the eating of ‘game’ meat brought its own risks. But with daily interaction between human beings and sheep, goats, pigs (where water was plentiful) and the rare bovine, a series of new diseases arose. Plagues were common, small populations were regularly decimated, and life expectancy was short (about 30 years).
In our world, we are supposed to have overcome these ‘primitive’ realities. Not so.
Hunting is still common in many parts, especially for ‘real men’. In the United States, Canada and Australia – for example – you can (with a gun license) go out and shoot wildlife, cut it up, take it home and eat it. Go to a fancy restaurant in Sydney or Copenhagen and you can buy an expensive dish of ‘game’ meat. Or go to the simplest barbeque, and it will be the men who stand around the barbeque cooking the ‘kill’ (even if it comes from a butcher).
In regard to disease cycles between domesticated animals and human beings, these continue to abound. Think of the ‘swine flu’ (H1N1), of which the most recent version appeared in North America in 2009, especially the United States of America. Or the avian influenza, which makes its way from the wild bird population, into the domestic bird population, and into human beings. Or the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which appears to have entered into the human population in 2012 via camels (and perhaps originally bats).
As for transmission from the ‘wild’ population, we have of course the coronavirus (influenza) from bats with both SARS and the recent Novel Coronavirus. But more notable is HIV/AIDS, which came through from primates into human beings and became a pandemic, originating in the United States.
Obviously, these disease cycles are a reality of human communities and their association with animals. They will continue as long as these two realities continue, so the question is how one deals with them. Let me take two comparable examples, one negative and one positive.
The first is the outbreak of ‘swine flu’ (H1N1), which appeared first in the United States (or perhaps Mexico). The World Health Organisation initially called it ‘North American Influenza’. The response by the regime in the United States was shambolic and slow. Schools remained open, workplaces did not use face masks, and U.S. airlines took virtually no measures, relying instead on previous and ineffective practices of looking for individuals with flu-like symptoms, not providing face masks even for cabin crew, and relying on the aircraft’s air-cleaning systems. Other airlines did take measures, especially from Eastern Asia. I recall arriving in Shanghai in 2009, and before we were allowed to disembark, all passengers were checked by health officials (one passenger had a temperature and those up to three seats around were quarantined). Perversely, the U.S. regime issued a travel warning for ‘restrictive’ measures instituted by Chinese medical experts. The result: by the time the pandemic had run its course, about 30,000 people died in the United States and up to 579,000 worldwide.
Obviously, this is an example of how not to deal with an outbreak.
Ten years later, we have the Novel Coronavirus outbreak in China. In this case, the Chinese government moved quickly, mobilising all of the state’s significant resources to contain the outbreak, communicating directly with WHO on a daily basis and sharing all information. Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, went into lock-down, all post Spring Festival travel was halted across a country of 1.4 billion, and from villages to cities people undertook the necessary measures to contain the virus’s spread. How was this possible? It has nothing to do with ‘authoritarian’ measures, but everything to do with the primary focus in China on the common good. Everyone contributes. The outcome: at the time of writing, about 10,000 people have been infected, only those with underlying conditions have died (in the low hundreds), and more and more leave hospital after recovering – and this is before a vaccine has been developed.