2020: The Year of the Hand Sanitizer

In a recent guided meditation named “The Virus”, artists from Dear Climate explored the anthropomorphic characteristics of a virus, (“visible to you in your imagination as a green haze, shifting shapes like fog on a mountain top”), its goals and means to reach them. In a chilling whisper, “do not fear The Virus. Look at it, see it and use your human reason to acknowledge how smart The Virus is. The Virus has only one aim: to replicate, to multiply. To accomplish this, it needs hosts, foreign organisms prone to infection, willing collaborators in a biological exchange. Remember The Virus does not want to kill you; you are its hosts; it needs you alive to live.” This meditation spread fear through my body, quicker than any disease could multiply, as the knowledge that cases of the Wuhan Corona-virus (COVID-19) are now present in my hometown, as the death toll increases.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), climate change, infectious diseases and pandemic threats are some of the urgent challenges that will imperil global health – but addressing them is “within reach” if action is taken now. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights many issues that need addressing; first and foremost, we need to find a cure. Secondly, we need to learn our lesson.

The SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) Corona-virus outbreak in 2002-2003 was the first global pandemic of the 21st century. There were 8,422 reported cases and 11% of those infected died. The cases were linked back to wildlife markets (also known as wet markets) and restaurants in Guangdong, China and as a result, authorities responded by imposing a temporary ban on the hunting, sale, transportation and export of all wild animals in southern China.

While China is being merited for its improved transparency about the current outbreak – in comparison to the communicative disaster during the SARS outbreak; it is sad to think that it has taken hundreds more deaths worldwide for the Chinese government to make the wildlife market ban permanent.

The Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which has been identified as the source of the infection, had a wild animal section, where live and slaughtered animals were on sale. The inventory included live wolf pups, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes, civets, hedgehogs, snakes, turtles and crocodiles. It also offered an array of animal parts, such as tails, bellies, tongues and intestines. With a mixture of urine, feces and other bodily fluids from the wild species mixed with blood from butchered animals, it is unsurprising that wet markets are the ideal breeding ground for viruses and bacteria to thrive.

Man cuts up fish at wet market in Wuhan city. Photo: Simon Song

The demand for wild meat has become a widespread issue and as a result, tropical forests are seeing devastating losses in their endemic wildlife populations, including many endangered species. Wild animal markets are not only exploitative and unethical, they threaten the security of biodiversity and wildlife to the brink of extinction. This illegal and unregulated trade is valuable to the Chinese economy, with animals being sold at high prices for human consumption and to the country’s medical industry.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is growing rapidly and has become a globally recognized treatment pathway among other pharmaceutical-based solutions – acupuncture and Tai Chi, being the most popular treatments, have not only been accepted but they are practiced globally in hospitals, GP surgeries and clinics.

Although many traditional Chinese medicinal bodies have eliminated the use of wild animal parts, tigers, pangolins, bears, rhinos and other species are still being poached to be used in archaic treatments for ailments such as erectile dysfunction, rheumatism, headaches and common colds. Wild animal usage in TCM is booming and the remedies purchased from parts such as rhino horns have become a status symbol among the rich. I guess grinding down your own fingernails to produce Keratin, the active ingredient in Rhino horns, doesn’t exude the same luxury of purchasing an endangered species to cure your hangover.

To conclude, one of the key concepts of health preservation in Chinese medicine is to “prevent disease before its occurrence”, which is steeped in unfortunate irony as the wild-animal-borne virus continues to wreak havoc and devastate globally without a cure. We have to hope that the Wuhan outbreak is a wake-up call for the Asian wildlife trade, animal and human welfare and the unacceptable use of wild-animal medicine.

But for now, I’m off to wash my hands.

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