The world’s population has become increasingly focused on a burgeoning environmental catastrophe having reached the point where only clowns and cuckoos deny the causes of increasing temperatures, melting ice-caps, rising seas, degraded soil and devastating weather events. However, few of us could have predicted a more immediate and sinister disaster arising from the reckless mismanagement of our fragile environment.
The arrival of Covid-19 is no more a natural occurrence than air pollution, pesticide poisoning, de-forestation, species extinctions or raging wildfires. This is not a plague sent by somebody’s God to wreak revenge for the sins of humanity. The causes are unquestionably linked, directly and indirectly, to a world economy obsessed with growth.
Notably, after China’s economic transformation of the 90’s, massively increased food production systems, many small farmers who could no longer compete within the livestock industry turned to marketing wild species as a ‘luxury’ food. Large scale agriculturalists subsequently pushed the small farmers out of areas of arable land into previously undisturbed ecosystems where bats and viruses lurk. The Pangolin is one such luxury item.
Though it is far from certain, it would appear that the disease originated from a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals, including fish, birds, rabbits, pangolins, bats and snakes are traded illegally. Virologists working at the Wuhan Institute for Virology discovered that the new coronaviruses’ genetic makeup is 96% identical to that of a coronavirus found in bats. Other research has also found that the genetic sequences of coronavirus in pangolins are at least 88.5% similar to the human virus. Therefore, the evidence suggests that the coronaviruses carried by bats may have jumped to humans via the pangolin which acted as an intermediate animal host.
Though bats and the pangolin may be the source of the current pandemic, modern models of food production are contributing to the emergence of new diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. We have seen highly infectious bird flu viruses linked to the increase in intensive farming of poultry. Huge sheds packed with birds, selectively bred to increase the yield of lean meat, and therefore of little genetic variance, can give weak resistance when a virus hits. Evidence shows that this type of farming can give rise to the development of more virulent viruses which have been found in factory farms in the more wealthy nations. This is where the link between free market capitalism and the shaping of disease ecology is clearly evidenced.
In terms of the issues of disease and poultry, we must question the motives the US who want us to reduce our food standards to accommodate the import of their chlorinated chickens. We may not like the idea of eating chlorinated chickens though the key issue is not that they are unsafe to eat, but more about why they are chlorinated in the first place. In the UK (and the EU) factory farmed chickens must be reared within an environment that maintains very high standards of hygiene and welfare so that diseases and infections are kept to a minimum. In the US the factory farms operate to significantly lower standards and so, consequently, the chlorination process is necessary to kill the diseases and infections that the birds inevitably pick up.
Now is the time to recognise that there must be an urgency in addressing the problems posed by the links between the environmental crisis, the new dangers of the direction of disease ecology, intensive animal farming, the dominance of corporate agri-business and the ruthless profiteering instincts of free market capitalism.