When we criticize others, we ought to first examine our own lack of perfection. A person of integrity is mindful of hypocrisy and double standards. There is a European saying, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Jesus also warned about the need of self-awareness. He said, “You hypocrite! First, remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.”(Matthew 7: 5)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the American infectious disease expert, is calling for a total ban on wet markets around the world. He recently told Fox and Friends, “It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.” He certainly has China in his cross hairs. I am aware that the United Nations’ biodiversity chief has called for a global ban on wildlife markets. But there is a big difference between a wildlife market and a wet market. A wet market is one where fresh produce and fresh meat are sold, not unlike a farmer’s market in the West. I grew up in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong and in China, most markets are wet markets. The supermarkets are a relatively recent phenomenon. The vast majority of wet markets don’t sell exotic wildlife. It is the first time I hear that there are people who eat bats or pangolins. It is reasonable to ban the wildlife markets. But to ban all wet markets is quite a different matter. Note also that there are wet markets all over Asia. It is the standard model.
American politicians, especially the Republicans, are quick to condemn China’s cultural practices and have called for various retributions related to the spread of the Coronavirus. They are either ignorant, or they conveniently forget, that some pandemics actually came from the industrialized West. Yes, the sanitary conditions in some Asian wet markets are bad. A 2015 WHO report on food-borne illnesses rated the food around the globe based on the rates of microbes, parasitic worms and toxins. It found the food safety conditions of the markets in emerging East Asia as satisfactory, quite comparable to those of the developed West. According to that report, the food safety conditions of East Asia excelled those in Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East and parts of South America.
This is not to say that the close human-animal interface in Asian markets is not a concern. But close human-animal interactions take place in European and American farms also. Hazardous and unseemly conditions exist particularly in the “factory farms” where animals are jammed into tiny spaces and injected with antibiotics and growth hormones to increase the profit margin. Animal right activists in the West, including PETA, have complained about the treatment of live animals in Asia’s wet markets. But what about the extremely crowded conditions in America’s factory farms and the inhumane ways animals are treated there? Such hypocrisy! This is a double standard.
The Mad Cow disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and Swine Flu pandemic are good examples of how new deadly diseases have also originated from the West. Just to refresh the memory, Mad cow disease originated in Britain. It spread in British herds in the mid-1980s after the cows were fed the processed animal remains of sheep infected with scrapie, a closely related brain-wasting disease. This caused a global scare of eating beef. Swine flu has caused scare and fatalities in human populations. Incidents of swine flu have been reported in 1988, 2007, 2009, 2015 and 2017. The WHO called the 2009 swine flu outbreak a pandemic. Scientists had traced this pandemic to a virus found in the 1998 swine flu. It originally came from an industrial hog farm in Sampson County, North Carolina’s leading hog producer. These two incidents demonstrate that the animal carriers of diseases which are deadly to humans don’t have to be wild or exotic animals. They may be our familiar farm animals.
But that is not all. Of all the dreaded pandemics that humans have seen in the last century or so, none can compare to the flu pandemic of 1918, mislabeled as the “Spanish flu.” Michael Rosenwald of the Washington Post had this to say about this horrific pandemic:
Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people — about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
Only two years ago, Becca Tanner of The Wichita Eagle published an investigative report on the Spanish Flu. She squarely put the Ground Zero of this pandemic right on American soil, in a rural area in Kansas. She wrote:
The virus began on the windswept Kansas prairie, where dirt-poor farm families struggled to do daily chores — slopping pigs, feeding cattle, horses, and chickens, living in primitive, cramped, uninsulated quarters.
Another American investigative reporter and historian, John M. Barry, spent many years researching the topic. He published a book, The Great Influenza, in 2004. He also published an article in the Journal of Translational Medicine in the same year. He wrote in the beginning of his article:
It has never been clear, however, where this pandemic began. Since influenza is an endemic disease, not simply an epidemic one, it is impossible to answer this question with absolute certainty. Nonetheless, in seven years of work on a history of the pandemic, this author conducted an extensive survey of contemporary medical and lay literature searching for epidemiological evidence — the only evidence available. That review suggests that the most likely site of origin was Haskell County, Kansas, an isolated and sparsely populated county in the southwest corner of the state, in January 1918 . If this hypothesis is correct, it has public policy implications.
If this is not enough, we should also take note of this article titled The Flu Epidemic of 1918, published in Kansapedia, a publication of the Kansas Historical society. It says:
In 1918 the United States was involved in World War I, but was also dealing with the outbreak of a deadly influenza epidemic. The first cases of the outbreak were recorded in Haskell County, Kansas, and Fort Riley, Kansas, where young men were being hospitalized for severe flu-like symptoms. A local doctor sent a report to the Public Health Service, but no one was sent to investigate the situation. On March 4, 1918, an outbreak appeared at Fort Riley, with as many as 500 soldiers hospitalized within a week.
Clearly, China is not the only place on earth that spawns new diseases. Reviewing the history of infectious diseases is educational. Perhaps we can draw the following conclusions:
- All human-animal interactions are potentially dangerous from a pathological point of view.
- The animal involved in a new disease does not have to be an exotic and/or wild animal. It can be our familiar farm animals such as chicken, pigs and cows.
- Traditional farms create ample opportunities for human-animal interface. But factory farms magnify the danger of new diseases due to the crowded conditions and many unsavory health practices. Michael Greger, a physician and a professional speaker on public health issues said, “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”
Yes, the sanitary conditions in Asia’s wet markets ought to be scrutinized and regulated. But the West cannot and should not put the responsibility of preventing zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) solely on China. The source of the problem is human-animal interactions. This means that new diseases may emerge as a result of deforestation, human encroachment on wild lands, farming (traditional or industrial), wildlife trafficking or the way meat products are displayed and marketed. Human-animal interactions are not likely to go away in the near future. We are all responsible, as Homo Sapiens. Putting the blame solely on China is both unfair and hypocritical. It is also dangerous — for it would take our attention off the human-animal interface that is occurring everyday in the farms in the West.