Something nice to set the mood.
I think by now everyone is pretty tired of hearing about the Corona virus. You don’t need me to figure out you want to have enough food, vitamin C and vitamin D in your house. However, there are a few things I find worth mentioning about it that I don’t hear enough.
First of all, I’m very embarassed by my nation’s government and health authorities right now. The Dutch equivalent of the CDC, the RIVM, was telling everyone that asymptomatic people can not spread the virus. There was no scientific evidence on the basis of which to make this suggestion, it’s simply a feel good idea. In reality, the evidence now suggests that asymptomatic people are the ones who actually spread the virus.
The Chinese government, after local officials initially tried to suppress evidence of the infection, handled the crisis quite well once they acknowledged it. The people in Wuhan in particular made a great sacrifice, that bought the rest of the world two months to prepare for the epidemic. What did European governments do with this valuable time? They squandered it. The Dutch government in particular is the laughing stock of the world, announcing today that flights from China, Korea, Italy and Iran are now halted, as if we’re not dealing with an uncontrollable epidemic ourselves by now.
The main thing I want to note however is that this outbreak is entirely our own collective fault, in the sense that it is a consequence of how our society functions. Humans are a severely overpopulated species. There are seven billion of us now, two centuries ago there were just one billion. As our numbers increase, we enter into contact with non-human species more regularly. As such events increase, the number of opportunities for pathogens to jump species from non-human species to our species increases too.
I should note here that biodiversity is not equally high throughout the world. It’s particularly high in humid warm parts of the world. As the population increases in such places, the risk of contact between species increases enormously, thereby guaranteeing the spread of disease.
This is one thing, but humans don’t just swell their own numbers and encroach upon other animals habitat. We made two dumb decisions. The first was that we insisted on eating vertebrate animals, animals whose bodies harbor pathogens that are sometimes quite capable of infecting ours. This isn’t new of course. Africa has a long history of cases of people eating wild animals that harbor dangerous pathogens.
The difference that matters, is that those cases burned out. A village or two would be decimated and life would continue as it did before. The first case of Ebola that really came close to setting off a global pandemic was in Western Africa. Somehow, after thousands of deaths and a global intervention, the pandemic came to an almost miraculous halt. But Sierra Leone is no China. China is now integrated into the global economy. People insist that it is their divine right, to travel freely back and forth from one country to another. You’re not hip and cool if you haven’t spent a semester studying abroad, or at least taken a gap year to go backpacking in South Vietnam. As a consequence the virus is now in every major city in the developed world.
So those are the three main problems that caused this. Humans insist on overcrowding the most biodiverse regions of the planet. Once we live there, we insist on eating the local vertebrate animals, to the point of extinction. Then, once we become sick, we regularly travel to far away places that would have been practically isolated from each other in the past. Essentially, this is the type of behavior that begs for a pandemic.
The thing that people fail to comprehend is that we need biodiversity. Biodiversity should be thought of as a buffer, that helps the ecosystem as a whole absorb sudden shocks. Consider the recent epidemic of poisonous caterpillars in my country, that are causing lethal allergies. The problem isn’t in the caterpillar itself, you only develop allergies once you’re exposed to them in high amounts. The reason they multiply so much is because we plant one of the few species they grow on in endless rows next to our roads. There are insects that would normally eat these caterpillars, but those species that can consume these caterpillars went extinct decades ago.
Bats in particular, could be thought of as Nature’s white blood cell. A bat needs to fly, which requires it to burn a lot of energy. As a consequence, the bat, like the bird, has a high body temperature. Whatever virus thus evolves in bats is a virus that is capable of withstanding heat. How does the human body normally try to get rid of a virus? Through fever. In the case of this coronavirus, that solution obviously fails to work.
The second thing to consider is that bats are both mobile and social. They preferentially live together in caves in large numbers and can easily travel large distances to other caves. They tend to be fine with different species living together in the same cave. When a lot of animals live together, viruses easily spread. The animals develop immunity against those illnesses, or their bodies learn to tolerate the virus. However, sometimes humans kill bats in large numbers. Bats from another group then invade the now desolate cave. They have a lot of offspring. This then leads to a large young population of unexposed bats, which allows the virus to spread. Those bats then becomes highly infectious and capable of spreading disease. Paradoxically, killing bats leads to an increase in diseased bats.
So, to make a long story short, humans kind of brought this onto themselves. People who study zoonosis have known this for a long time, in that sense I’m not telling you anything radically new. Bill Gates had a simulation done on the risk of a coronavirus outbreak years ago. In his simulation, a coronavirus in bats in Brazil spreads to domesticated pigs. Those pigs then spread it to humans, leading to mass death. This is essentially the most likely way for a pandemic to spread: Domesticated animal herds invading a region with high biodiversity.
Other than the Coronavirus, there’s a long list of viruses hiding out in bats, ready to start spreading in humans. Some of these viruses kill the majority of people they infect, because the main human defense mechanism (fever) doesn’t work very well against a virus adapted for a body two degree warmer than ours. Instead of considering ourselves unlucky, we should consider the current situation a form of luck. It’s a miracle it took so long for a big outbreak to occur. We’re also very lucky when we consider the low mortality rate of this virus. The Middle Eastern coronavirus that jumped from bats to camels to humans killed 36% of those infected, with decent treatment this virus kills about 0.5%. If anything, this is a test run for far more deadly viruses that will follow.
This situation could have been prevented, if humans had been capable of following three rules:
-Don’t overpopulate parts of the world with high biodiversity, leave wild animals undisturbed.
-Don’t eat vertebrate animals.
-Don’t travel around the world.
We increasingly find ourselves violating all three of these rules, so now we see the consequences. This situation is merely the beginning, it’s inevitable that we will find ourselves faced with more of these viruses in the future. Consider the case of Congo. This nation had 12 million people in 1950. Today it has 90 million, in a country covered by rainforests. By 2100, it is expected to have 362 million people. Where are these people going to live? What are they going to eat? Are they going to stay in their isolated villages, or are they going to travel to local markets in cities with airports? Now that humans have shown themselves unwilling to coexist with the natural world, the natural world is ready to fight back.