Do people really have their origins in Asia?
Ducks in the pond - why pandemics always originate in China
It is a historical fact that widespread epidemics very often originate in China. It is less clear why this is so. It's related to the geography of the country, people's food preferences, but also notorious state failure.
Skipping bird flu viruses on humans, Sars and now Covid-19: Again and again such scourges of humanity have their origin in China. Just why?
Of course, there are natural reasons for this. China is a country with a large population in a relatively small area. In the steppes of the north, where the population density is low and large, undeveloped areas predominate, livestock is certainly practiced - but the relatively low rainfall does not allow intensive cultivation. In addition, China is largely a mountainous or hilly country. The agriculturally usable area is small - that is why the population's protein needs were met primarily from plant sources: the soybean and the products made from it have been the primary source of protein for the Chinese population for centuries. In addition, chickens or pigs were kept to which the waste could be fed.
In the alluvial landscapes of the estuary of the long river, the harmonious union of wet rice cultivation and fish farming was also cultivated - the famous land of fish and rice. Today China is itself a net importer of soy, the world's largest on top of that. Three quarters of the soybeans consumed are now imported. Anyone who is afraid of pesticide-contaminated vegetables in China is therefore well advised to stick to soy products: The beans come from the American continent, although genetically modified, but at least the limit values for pollutants must have been complied with.
Risky duck farming
However, chickens and pigs are also the two farm animals that are most likely to transmit strains of the virus to humans. However: The two best-known cases of the flu virus jumping from pigs to humans - the Spanish flu of 1918 and the so-called swine flu of 2009/10 - both presumably originated in the USA and not in China.
On the other hand, China is a major source of danger for the bird flu virus to jump over, because the danger does not necessarily come primarily from the chickens, which in China are for the most part also kept industrially - i.e. indoors - but from duck breeding, which is widespread in the country. Because this needs a pond - which is laid out in the fresh air for practical reasons and thus enables direct contact between wild birds and farm poultry and thus the transmission of all kinds of viruses between species. In China, therefore, the likelihood that bird flu viruses will be transmitted to feathered livestock and enter the cycle of humans and livestock is significantly higher than in other countries.
When the state is unable to ensure food safety, the average Chinese take care of it themselves.
Viruses can be transmitted from animals to humans in two places: at the point of production, where a virus spreads to farmers or agricultural production workers, or at the point of sale to the end consumer, i.e. on the market. Live chickens are often bought there, while live pigs are not carted to market in China either. This should explain why bird flu viruses, but not swine flu viruses, often spread to humans in China.
Only fresh is controllable
The Chinese are indisputably a people of gourmets. And it is well known that the fresher, the better. This certainly explains to a certain extent why animals are often bought alive. But that's not the only reason: China is a country that is repeatedly shaken by food scandals. So the buyer says to himself: Better buy the chicken alive, because you can see with your own eyes that the animal did not die of any disease beforehand.
The same applies to the wild animals, which have been hunted in China from ancient times out of pure necessity and which today serve as a welcome change for gourmets - although unfortunately they represent a reservoir of all kinds of viruses. Who wants to buy a hunted wild animal if they don't know how it died? And here is the crux of the matter: The Chinese foodie may be willing to sacrifice part of his enjoyment for the safety of food and buy the animal already killed. But if a dead animal is synonymous with: "I don't know how it was killed, whether it was sick and died or whether it was healthy and was properly killed" - then, to be on the safe side, the consumer would rather have a live animal than a slaughtered one to buy.
This is one of the reasons why China is always at the origin of virus epidemics. It is not only the natural conditions of the country or the culinary preferences of the population that encourage the outbreak of epidemics, but also the basic mistrust of the people in the authorities. If the state, which otherwise likes to control everything, is not in a position to ensure food safety, then the average Chinese takes this by hand.
Even if the authorities closed all markets on which live animals are offered, it would be assumed that live animals would continue to be traded on black markets. Not only did the administration fail when it came to detecting the coronavirus in good time after its first appearance in Wuhan and containing it locally. The lack of trust in the competence of the authorities and the rampant corruption have created the conditions for the global pandemic disaster. Unfortunately, however, the prospects for improvement are slim: as long as the state sets wrong priorities in the control of its citizens, there will continue to be socially risky practices among the citizens, in the food sector and elsewhere.
Thomas Baumann is an economist and freelance author. He has lived (mainly) in China for many years.
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