Origin story | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Origin story

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The photo has ben used for illustrative purposes.

Covid-19 has once again warned humanity not to intrude on and interact with wild animals, birds and insects as they can infect us with pandemics we cannot counter and control. China has rejected the idea that the coronavirus pandemic originated from a bat-infected pangolin at a “wet market” for meat, poultry, seafood, wildlife, fruit and vegetables in the city of Wuhan, but this remains the most likely scenario.

Consequently, it is essential to analyse why the presence in the market of pangolin could be the origin of covid. Native to the Indian Subcontinent, northern Indo-china and southern China, the pangolin, known as the “scaly anteater,” is a slow-moving creature, making it easy prey. It feeds on insects and inhabits, along with bats, tropical forests, grassland and cultivated areas — anywhere ants and termites abound. It is valued by Chinese who consume its meat and wrongly believe its scales have medicinal properties.   

While scales protect it from wild predators, human hunters brave bans on killing or capturing pangolin which fetch high prices in local and foreign markets. The presence in the market of pangolin, a critically endangered species due to poaching and trading, broke not only Chinese laws prohibiting capturing and killing these animals but also international bans against wildlife trafficking.

Clearly, the authorities in Wuhan did not take the laws of their country seriously and close down wildlife trade in its main wet market. They waited to act until covid had made the leap to infect humans. Although a ban is currently in place, domestic and foreign trade persists online. The issue of dealing in wildlife has not been resolved.

Thanks to increasing man’s encroachment on habitats of wildlife and interactions with a wide range of animals, birds and insects, scientists believe that 70 per cent of new diseases that infect humans come from animals and the rate of pandemics is accelerating. Among other recent cases, they cite the emergence of the original SARS, acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, from cat-like civets infected by bats in Yunnan province in China. SARS spread to 29 countries, infecting 8,000 and killing 774. The Chinese government should have learned from this experience and banned the country-wide market trade in wild animals but did not.   

Ebola is a highly contagious often fatal haemorrhagic fever which emerged in and spread from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013-2016, infecting 29,000 and killing at least 11,000 before a vaccine was deployed; this virus jumped to humans from an African monkey’s blood and meat which is consumed.

One of the earliest examples of the transfer of animal viruses to humans was recorded in Mesopotamia around 2,300 BC when pet dogs infected their masters or others with rabies caught from rats, foxes, and bats — bats being, once again, the most dangerous vectors.   

The “Justinian plague” caused by a strain of the rat-borne bubonic virus (later known as the

Black Death) spread round the Mediterranean basin in the 6th century AD and recurred until the 8th century when the Prophet Muhammad quarantined ailing followers in a compound in Medina.  

The Black Death of the 14th century was the deadliest plague in human history. It killed 75-200 million people in Eurasia, northern Africa and Europe. The virus was spread to humans by fleas from black rats which fled to cities after grasslands were dried out by drought due to climate change.

The most recent global pandemic was the “Spanish flu” which emerged in 1918-19 after World War I. This flu had an avian origin, infected 500 million people and killed 50 million worldwide. At that time there were no vaccines or treatments for this virus.

On the health front, epidemiologists and environmentalists have warned that outbreaks of coronavirus-like diseases could be driven and their damage intensified by global warming, pollution, and deforestation. The World Health Organisation has reported that there have been one billion cases and millions of deaths which can be traced to animal populations. Scientists estimate there are 1.67 million unknown viruses that infect mammals and birds and 631,000-827,000 which could leap to humans but, fortunately, have not succeeded due to our bodies’ defences.

On the environmental front, the covid pandemic has had mixed positive and negative impacts.

Global lockdowns have dramatically cut air, road, and rail traffic, reducing pollution temporarily. Pandemic restrictions have also cut industry operations and emissions, lowering greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.  

Scientists have found the reduction of pollution levels could be a boon for people who live in locations with poor air quality and suffer from respiratory illnesses. Such people often come from the working class and have little access to healthcare.  

Lockdown gains could be at least partially conserved if businesses continue to rely on remote work rather than staff who commute to offices. If remote work become the new norm it has been estimated that transportation emissions could be cut by 15 per cent.

However, if the return to full economic activity means governments will invest in polluting industries rather than in “green” technologies, the world will resume its destructive habits. Consequently, governments everywhere have to rebuild their economies, create jobs and support businesses while considering potential impacts on air quality, water, sanitation, and waste management on the stressed environment.   

Diminishing fish stocks have been replenished as fishermen have not been able to go to sea and humans have invaded the wild less often due to movement restrictions. However, deer, foxes, wolves, and other animals normally wary of the presence of humans have roamed through towns and cities bringing fleas and ticks harbouring viruses into human habitats.

As millions of manual labourers lose livelihoods in urban centres due to covid they are returning to rural areas where many will turn to unsustainable farming or clear fresh land for agriculture to provide sustenance for their families.

Deforestation for agricultural purposes is the largest cause of global habitat loss and forces animals and birds to migrate, come into contact with wild creatures, livestock and humans and share pathogens.  

The absence of forest rangers and guards have given loggers and farmers opportunities to push into the Amazon rainforest and set fire to fresh acreage and enabled African and Asian poachers to hunt dwindling endangered species. In Africa, in particular, job losses have boosted the trade in “bush meat” from primates, the activity which had produced Ebola outbreaks in the Congo.

The construction of homes and infrastructure in forested areas has been a key factor in producing wildfires that have devastated California other US western states and Australia, killed wildlife and driven animals, birds, and insects into human habitations.

Due to covid, we have an opportunity to change our behaviour to save the planet from climate change and ourselves from further pandemics. Will we take it?

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