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Let’s not pretend that pandemics are a ‘foreign’ problem

Make no mistake, it’s not just the bats and pangolins of distant Chinese markets that pose a direct threat to your health. Viruses do not necessarily jump from animal to human only when an exotic creature is introduced, ill-advisedly, to particular anthropomorphic spheres. We’ve been brewing a bug in Britain since modern mass-farming began. And if you’ve echoed Trump in referring to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus’, now is the time to examine your motivations.

Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows (2003) was a more profound and perspective-changing read than I imagined it might have been. Expecting a Doctor-Dolittle-style insight into the bovine world (and that’s partly what it is), Young’s opening statement instead offers a neat summary of the importance of de-barring, de-drugging, and diversifying the diets of local cow populations in order to avoid future catastrophe. Yes, freeing Daisy to the field and refraining from patting her on the head and pumping her with drugs is important in bettering the quality of your steak and lessening the likelihood of lockdown.

Written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Young’s analysis of the disease-breeding state of intensive farming, or ‘factory farming’, is oddly far-sighted. Although not explicitly addressing the possible worldwide spread of a virus, Young knows intuitively that intensive farming poses a risk to human, as well as animal, health. Scientists agree that ‘intensive farming techniques increase the likelihood of pathogens becoming a major public health risk’. Clearly, domesticating and containing once-wild animals is a risky business wherever it happens.

We seem desperate to prove that questionable experimentation with bat-blood means that China, specifically, created this storm in a test-tube, rather than acknowledging that the UK might also have caused the next big breakout. Recently, I wrote an article for Cherwell which, in part, explored our strange ability to ignore or belittle the coronavirus crisis while it remained ‘elsewhere’. The present manifestation of this xenophobic denial and belief in British invincibility is seen in the search for conspiracy-style theories which tie the genesis of the virus irrefutably to Chinese practice and never to our own. This is a pattern repeated globally.

Covid-19 has fuelled an outbreak in racism and xenophobia worldwide. In the ‘global coronavirus blame-game’, there is a commitment, against fact, to find that the virus was stewed in a Chinese laboratory and a comparative lack of Google searches to investigate the xenophobic rhetoric used in such statements of the case. The outsourcing of blame for the coronavirus is an example of political scapegoating which relies on prejudice, rather than evidence, to become a shared and accepted narrative.

Donald Trump voiced the rumour, Mike Pompeo backed him up, and Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, has been a prominent voice in the UK to support the unfounded cause. On the contrary, most scientists agree that the virus is neither man-made, nor man-manipulated.

If Chinese wet-markets, wildlife farming, and styles of governance pose a greater risk of causing a pandemic, it is only a matter of probability rather than a fundamental difference. The certifiable reasons for the spread of coronavirus are universal results of global trends, including an increased number of disease-hosts (animals), a closer proximity to animals, increased travel and trade, and the destruction of individual habitats. If you eat meat, have been on holiday this year, have come into contact with an animal, and have purchased something from abroad, I would argue you’ve played a part in the path towards the current crisis.  

In China and in relation to Covid-19, it is invariably the proximity of livestock and people’s houses, or the condensing of multiple species into one environment that made the transmission to humans ever-more likely. International movement of goods and people allowed for the virus to spread quite so extensively in a relatively short space of time. Nothing more, nothing less.

Myths which connect pandemics to animal-eating habits, to poor communities, and to certain areas of the globe are debunked in this article by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Recent pandemics have ushered from pigs in Northern America (H1N1 in 2003) and from camels in the Arabian Peninsula (MERS in 2012). Future ones might conceivably hail from the British Isles. The UK was simply lucky that the British-bred Mad Cow Disease was less infectious than COVID-19 and the fall-out less bleak, although they still somehow managed to lay the blame unjustly upon Chinese restaurants despite the more probable cause being the feeding of Scapie’s-infected sheep-meat to cows.

Racist rhetoric can blind us from applying information reasonably and critically to our own contexts. Poaching, hunting, eating road-kill, keeping strange pets, packing animals into close-quarters are catalysts which might be seized upon in a comparable fashion to Chinese eating-habits or market-shopping if the UK were the source. Near my home, a field of sheep is surrounded by laminated signs asking people to stay at a distance or risk catching the next disease of animal origin. I have no reason to believe that this is a ploy to keep people off the land, as they always settled on ‘we may bite’ for that purpose before.

Labelling a pandemic, which by definition is global, with a nationality is questionable and unscientific. At the very least, it shows a will to palm off responsibility to distant shores. At the suspected worst, it (unsubtly) constitutes discriminatory rhetoric. The national press is split between creating clickbait headlines declaring that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon and taking issue with such unjust accusations. However, few have thought to posit worldwide culpability and need for reform in our treatment of the ecosystem; the buck is still passed to the Chinese to pay individual penance.

Pandemics have not always given rise to violence and hatred. The Covid-19 Anti-Racism Group is petitioning for a more compassionate and, ultimately, non-racist response to this pandemic. In their words, it’s about time that ‘the media… emphasize solidarity, courage, and mutual support across all communities, rather than feed hostility, division, and racism.’ Why not make this pandemic an international lesson, rather than a chance to condemn a single nation’s practices which are replicated in some form across much of the post-globalisation world? Let’s stop pretending pandemics are a Chinese problem.

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