Apr 05, 2020
The World Health Organization labelled the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March 2020. Pandemics, according to their classical definition, are trans-border epidemics that that affect a large number of people worldwide. Till date, over 1,120,000 people have been infected and more than 60,000 lives have been lost across 202 countries around the world and 2 international conveyances. The numbers are only rising exponentially. However, it has been alleged that it all started from a single piece of legislation. The following analysis shall observe the birth of the legislation, the industry that was set up after its enactment and the danger it now poses. Similar events to COVID-19 shall also be discussed, bringing into perspective the lessons we learned and forgot from the past.
The Great Chinese Famine
The ‘Great Chinese Famine’ from 1958-62 killed about 45 million people in China. The 1970s was a particularly arduous time for China. The communist regimes, which controlled all food production, were failing to feed its population of 900 million people. China was crumbling. On the verge of collapse, the regime gave up this control over food production and allowed private farming in 1978. “It started with mostly peasant-household backward operation of turtles” Peter Li observes. The encouragement of the government was inspiring the people to make their living through, no matter what, any kind of productive activities. The control was lifted to such a level that there were no legal barrier on the item of production. Down the road, the Chinese government made a decision that would alter the course of wildlife trade forever. The ‘Law on the Protection of Wildlife’ (hereinafter LPW) was adopted in 1988. This law designated the wildlife animals as “resources owned by the State” and protected people engaged in the “utilization of wildlife resources”. Wildlife farming was finally legalized, but this was the beginning of the trouble to come.
The problem with the law
The LPW declared the State as owner of the wildlife resources and ensured the legal rights and interests of the individuals who were either developing or utilizing ‘wildlife resources’. Giving the wildlife a status equal to ‘natural resource’ made them a ‘usable product’ for human benefit. As a result, along with poultry and other domesticated animals, wild animals like snakes, bears and yes, bats, were utilized for the human benefit and consumption. The law also provided for domestication and breeding of wildlife with a prior approval from the State. With the introduction of a licensing system, small local farms started industrial-sized operations. A bear farm which only started out three, eventually became a farm containing over a thousand.
Larger populations meant greater possibilities that a sick animal could spread disease. Farmers were also raising a great variety of animals, which meant more viruses on the farms. These animals were then funneled into the wet-market for sale and profit. However, this legal wildlife farming surge created a cover for the illegal wildlife industry as well. Endangered animals like tigers, rhinoceroses and pangolins were trafficked into China. By the early 2000s, these wet-markets were teeming with wild animals.
Moreover, these industrially produced wild animals are slaughtered by the vendors in front of the customers in the wet-markets like Huanan. This is a cultural practice in China to directly watch the slaughtering of the animal they are buying. Thus, in the wet markets there are lots of dead animals in the shops making it a confluence of aerosolized particles of all sorts of germs.
The recent pandemic creating Coronaviruses are considered as ‘zoonotic diseases’ since they are spread to people from animals. According to the statement by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the inherent environment and the nature of these wet-markets make it possible for a virus to make an interspecies leap.
Zoonotic diseases: Bats and pangolins
Three out of every four novel or looming infectious diseases in people originate in animals, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bats carry a strikingly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses compared to other mammals. This is usually passed through their feces. If a bat drops feces onto a fruit that another animal consumes, that animal in turn becomes a ‘carrier’ for the disease. This then propagates onto humans when these carriers are guzzled.
Research in genetics has almost confirmed that the novel coronavirus spreading all over the world — called nCoV-2019 — has its origins in bats. The virus afterwards transitioned from that animal, which became a carrier for the bats, to humans at a wet-market, like the ones in Wuhan. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, another coronavirus, has its origins in bats as well. The virus then transmitted to civets, which afterwards got passed onto humans in a wet-market in China. The SARS outbreak infected over than 8,000 people and caused the death of 774 between 2002 and 2003.
In 2016, ‘The Wildlife Protection Law’ as mentioned above was revised. It had prohibited the hunting, killing, selling and buying of about 1,800 rare and endangered creatures, save for with special permissions, noted Li Zhang. He also adds that trading and consumption of wildlife is both an open threat to animals, as well as a severe public-health hazard. The pangolin, suspected to be the source of the novel coronavirus by scientists, is already enlisted.
Near about three-fourths of zoonotic diseases originate from wildlife, says Erin Sorrell. The diseases can be dreadfully disastrous: HIV, Ebola, and SARS are among those diseases that have made the transition from wildlife to humans, thus spawning international outbreaks.
Wildlife trade in China
In 2017, a government-sponsored report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering found that the nation’s wildlife trade was worth an excess of $73 billion and the industry employed well over one million people. From the emergence of the virus in December 2019, nearly 20,000 wildlife farms spread across seven provinces in China have been locked down or put under quarantine. Wildlife breeders specializing in deer, foxes, peacocks and turtles are on this list, according to local government press releases.
A study by Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in 2012, found that in major cities in China, one-third of the people had used wild animals in their lifetime for food, medication or apparel—which was only slightly lesser, compared to their last survey in 2004. The researchers also discovered that merely over 52% of the total participants agreed that wild animals should not be consumed. This percentage was even higher in Beijing; over 80% of residents were against the consumption of wildlife. Bringing into comparison, about 42% of total participants were opposing the practice during the last survey which took place in 2004. It is clear that despite there being a majority of people who did not consume wildlife during their lifetime, the proportion of people who do consume are not insignificant. Even though there was an 8 year difference between the two surveys, and the habits of wildlife consumers having changed merely marginally.
Around the world: Ebola and SARS
A ban was placed on 54 species of animals after the SARS outbreak in China, in 2003; after speculations that the disease may have originated in civets which were sold in a wet-market in the province of Guangdong. Later that year the ban was lifted, permitting licensed breeders to continue raising the animals; so as long as they undergo routine sanitation checks. However, SARS broke out again in Guangdong in the beginning of 2004; civets at a restaurant tested positive for the virus. Shortly, another ban was swiftly enacted. A second outbreak had been averted.
Nanshan Zhong, an infectious disease researcher and a revered figure leading the SARS response, and Guangqiao Zeng wrote in 2006 that another coronavirus like SARS could possibly develop into an epidemic “if no action is taken to control wildlife markets.” By 2007, alarms were raised by researchers once more regarding the trade and consumption of animals like civets.
In the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak taking place in West Africa, officials speculated that the hunting and slaughtering of wild animals were to blame for the initial transition from animals to humans. However, research now suggests that the ‘jump’ may have occurred when a two-year-old child played in a hollow tree that was the home to bats which harbored the virus. Officials implemented a ban on hunting, selling, and eating of wild meat, even though it later became clear the disease was spreading between humans.
After all this, it is rather clear that more consideration should be given to what researchers have to say, in order for the actions of the Executive to be effective. Also, even if a ban is placed to control an outbreak, if enough time is not given for the situation to be brought under control, the same issue or another may arise, thus defeating the initial ban’s objective.
Lifting the ban and reinstating: Problem of banning
On January 1, 2020 officials closed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and the authorities in Wuhan banned the trade of live-animal across all markets in the city soon afterwards. Afterwards, China’s Legislature banned the trading and eating of wildlife on February 25, 2020. This was an effort to prevent zoonotic diseases being transmitted from wildlife to humans.
A legislative spokesman, Zhang Tiewei told Reuters that the decision came at a "critical moment for the epidemic prevention and control." The National People’s Congress has laid down that wildlife trade will be “severely punished” along with the hunting, transporting and transacting wild animals for consumption purposes. However, using wildlife for non-edible purposes such as for medical use, scientific purposes and display, will be subject to rigorous inspection, confirmation and quarantine probing. However, there is a catch to banning such a lucrative industry.
"A total ban on trading wild animals would criminalize a substantial proportion of the Chinese population, and be untenable," Zhao-Min Zhou, a Chinese wildlife-policy researcher, told Nature. He further adds that locking down animal markets would only push the whole industry underground.
About 150 million people are malnourished in China, according to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP); for whom a source of protein is wild meat. Pursuant to a study conducted in 2018, in a survey conducted across Asia, Africa and Latin America, 39% of households harvest wild meat; poorer households usually rely on this more.
From 2013-2016 during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a ban was implemented on the consumption, hunting and selling of wild meat by officials, even though it became evident that the virus was being transmitted from person to person. Counter-intuitively, instead of putting an end to the trade, it only drove the industry deeper underground. This resulted in making it virtually impossible for the industry to be regulated, thus making spillover instances far more challenging to catch.
As a result of markets being unregulated, which is mainly the case in China, opportunities are presented for maladies to be transmitted to various other species, which includes humans. Nonetheless, a long-lasting and comprehensive commitment to administration would necessitate “substantial resources and oversight,” said Melissa Marx, who helped lead the Zambia study and worked in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic. She further adds that “It would be a massive investment in a huge country like China.”
It now seems that China can neither keep the law, nor remove it. On one hand, there is the issue of letting the status quo be upheld and face criticism from citizens and foreign nations; on the other hand there is the risk of criminalizing an entire industry, thus making the entire trade go unregulated. In effect, it all hinges on how China administers its markets and how well it has the black market probed.
Real picture of China
While it may seem that all of China has bat-soup and snakes for dinner given the photos on social media, this could not be further from the real picture. Peter Li points out that, “The majority of the people in China do not eat wildlife animals. Those people who consume these wildlife animals are the rich and the powerful –a small minority.” It is interesting to note that a majority of wildlife trade in China had already been illegal. The ‘Wildlife Protection Law’ in China made it illegal for the hunting and trading of endangered species; which was inapplicable to all wild animals. Regardless, the system stayed in place mainly due to soft administration and legal loopholes. Disparity in the names of the breeds and online trading of exotic animals as household pets are some key examples. This brings into perspective how much lobbying power the rich and powerful have, despite the fact that they represent only a small portion the people. Lax enforcement and inefficient schedules of wildlife animals’ names are some seemingly easy avenues the Executive should put more assertion upon.
A 2014 study that surveyed more than a thousand people in five Chinese cities found radically different practices in different parts of the country. Of the people who were interviewed, these percentages of people had consumed wildlife animals in the last year before: 83% in Guangzhou, 14% in Shanghai and merely 5% in Beijing. All over the country, about 50% of the people interviewed responded that wildlife should not be consumed at all. The reality is that, for many Chinese people, the consumption of wild animals is actually an abnormality. Media outlets which are controlled by the State such as China Daily have published caustic editorials criticizing this practice and called for an absolute wildlife trade ban. Peter Li has expressed a small minority in China, the rich and the powerful, is what propels this industry forward. It is this minority that the Chinese government chose to favor over the safety of the rest of this population, which is over 1.43 billion and 18.5% of the world population.
Even though it may be true that the will of a small minority has such a prominence, it is still true that half the people interviewed did in fact admit that wildlife should be consumed. Given that the classes are divided into two, a compromise must be achieved. Regardless of the rich and powerful being of such influence, it is nonetheless true that over a million people are involved in this lucrative industry. The government must not listen to only one particular voice, but take all voices into account and make a decision after that.
What started out as a mission to end the horrors of famine and eradicate poverty, eventually became the cause of a pandemic which has stopped the whole world in its tracks. Mighty nations are falling prey to a predator they cannot see, but can only keep themselves ‘locked’ away from. All this, could possibly have been the result of a single piece of legislation. However, removing this law would only push the industry underground, making it even more difficult to regulate. This law has thus proven to be a double edged sword.
Knowing the impact of wildlife trade and the danger of zoonotic diseases, the examples of HIV, Ebola and SARS should have been enough for us to take notice. Ongoing threats to our lives like climate change and deforestation are very popular tragedies. Even though the red flags are there, we pay no heed. Ignorance after the SARS outbreak has resulted in the current pandemic. Similarly, we are not paying attention to the rising global temperatures and the melting of the Arctic. This goes to show that we are always warned, but choose to look the other way. This just goes to show that in the process of development and prosperity, the sins of the past do sometimes come back to haunt us.
Endnotes1. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, ‘WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19’ (Press Briefing, Geneva, 11 March 2020)
Tanveer Ahmed Fahim is a 4th Year student at the Department of Law, University of Dhaka.