From bird flu to swine influenza to now coronavirus, the People’s Republic of China can be perceived by the globe to have seemingly unleashed a cohort of epidemics onto humanity in the last few decades. Because the coronavirus breakout has undoubtedly grown into an pandemic, it’s crucial to assess the factors that led to its prevalence to prevent its spread. Would the disease have displayed a different transmission rate with a different country of origin? Did the authoritarian Chinese government exacerbate the already rapidly developing situation by underreporting the increasing number of infection cases? No matter what, one thing is for certain: China’s wildlife culture and its extreme censorship of news by its government creates susceptibility to epidemics, all the while stirring up global, racially-fueled stigma.
The most recent coronavirus, abbreviated COVID-19, is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system in humans by spreading through close contact with droplets from sneezing and coughing. (CDC, 2020) Coronavirus predates COVID-19; it is a larger group of viruses named after their “crown-like” appearance. One of them, Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), originated in the Guangdong province of China in 2002 and carried a 10% fatality rate. (Tesini, 2018) At a fatality rate of 3.7% currently, COVID-19 may be slowly approaching the same level of catastrophe as SARS. Other than originating from China, what do the beginnings of these two diseases have in common?
The cultural beliefs in Chinese society propagate the use of an extensive wildlife market, subsequently making the entire country more prone to these diseases. The pangolin, an animal resembling a scaly anteater, has been newly identified as the most plausible suspect of originally transmitting COVID-19 to humans. According to a study from South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, the coronavirus extracted from both pangolins and humans was sequenced and showed a 99% similarity rate. (Cyranoski, 2020) While pangolins are a “protected” species in China, their distribution is rampant, causing sales throughout the country of their meat and scales based on claims and folklore of healing properties. This hypothesis also coincides closely with the fact that COVID-19 began in a seafood market of Wuhan, as local residents could have easily transmitted the disease from the illegal sale of pangolin parts. Approximately 75% of viruses and 50% of bacteria known to cause disease in humans are zoonotic and can be transmitted between animals and people, despite evolutionary immune system developments against these microbes (Efird, 2020). With such a high percentage of existing pathogenic viruses known to be transmittable between humans and animals, there’s no doubt China suffers a massive disadvantage in terms of health due to its large, and mostly illegal, animal market.
Although the animal presence in China is partly responsible for the transmission of disease, the suppression of media by the authoritarian government contributes to the delay in containment. Currently, news reporting agencies cower in fear of being shut down, neglecting to report incidents such as the coronavirus to avoid instilling fear and tarnishing their reputation in global trade (Hassid, 2019). Without any whistleblowers, China cannot possibly hope to catch illegal market trading, let alone prevent the spread of an outbreak. When doctor Li Wenliang warned of a “SARS-like” infection, he was reprimanded by local authorities for “disturbing social order” (Leung, 2020). This suppression of free speech has made awareness a hopeless fight, and hope a nonexistent sentiment. Unless the Chinese government drastically changes the protocol in terms of dealing with potentially ignominious news, there is little chance of preventing another outbreak.
The sudden COVID-19 outbreak has sparked scapegoating on the global community. It is speculated that the newness and ‘mysteriousness’ of a disease is the key that unlocks the extremes of insecurity and fear to ignite scapegoating and mass violence against minorities (Cohn, 2012). Undoubtedly a new-coming disease, COVID-19 brings back similar instances like the Ebola epidemic in 2015. Without a solution against infection, it is natural for people to resort to blame. Additionally, the frequency with which diseases originate out of China over the past few decades contributes to the fallacy that certain groups of people are more likely to cause misfortune on humanity (Chen, 2020). Without a doubt, stigma and racism are byproducts of epidemics that not only decrease the morale of its victims, but also accentuates more conflict on the global scale.
COVID-19, while still novel, has certainly made its mark on the planet. Although it originated from China like other viral epidemics of the past, it’s important to assess the reasons why rather than pushing more conflict through racially-fueled reproach. In order for China to cease the long chain of infection stemming from its animal markets and stifling government, simultaneous changes in law enforcement and freedom of speech are called upon in the near future.
Edited by Sarina McCabe
Posted by Lucy Mangalapalli
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