• Paul D. Wilke

Call it the Chinese Virus

I remember years ago running into an old racquetball partner when I was living in California. I hadn't seen the guy in a few years, so we went through the usual pleasantries of catching up. I don't remember anything about that conversation other than his offhand comment on how much weight I had gained. I had, in fact, added about 25 pounds since I saw him last. In retrospect, he was merely stating the obvious. But damn, it stung!

What did I feel?


It kind of ruined my day, in fact.

What did I do?

I started a diet and lost those extra pounds. I stopped telling myself that my pants didn't fit anymore because they had shrunk in the wash.

Shame is a great motivator.

In other words, I stopped bullshitting myself that nothing had changed.

Love it or hate it, shaming is an effective way to modify behavior. We've forgotten this timeless truth living as we do in today's non-judgy world where any criticism is condemned as (fill in the blank)-shaming, or (fill in the blank)-phobic. No one likes to be shamed, me no less than you. Still, sometimes it's the necessary jolt that awakens us from our self-deceptions.

More broadly, though, shaming was once the glue that held societies together. Deviating too far from a culture's social norms often resulted in a sobering dose of public shame and humiliation. It was a draconian but effective way to coerce conformity without ever calling the police.

Nobody wants to go back to that world, but maybe we've swung too far in the other direction. I get all the arguments about why we shouldn't call the COVID-19 pandemic the Chinese Virus or the Wuhan flu, as the President and his team are starting to do. I also understand the administration's desire to spin the crisis in a way that shifts blame away from its own bumbling response. The unspoken conclusion we're supposed to draw from this clever spinning is that it's all China's fault because the pandemic originated in China.

But political motives aside, isn't that true?

We need to face some facts. This isn't the first time a pandemic has burst out of China. There's evidence that the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 originated in China, transported by some of the 90,000 Chinese workers sent to Europe to work as manual laborers. The Asian flu of 1956-57 was responsible for one to two million deaths worldwide. The Hong Kong flu outbreak of 1968 took another one to four million lives. The 2003 SARS pandemic originated from wild animals sold in a Chinese wet market in Guandong. In 2013, H7N9 Bird Flu came from the poultry sold in various Chinese wet markets. More recently, African Swine Fever (ASF) in 2018-2019 devastated China's pig population, killing around 300 million of them. Though ASF is not dangerous (yet) to humans, it offers up another example of a devastating virus in China's teeming biological melting pot.

Of course, not every nasty disease comes out of China. Swine flu out of Mexico in 2009 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak from Saudi Arabia in 2012 are the most notable recent exceptions. However, certain circumstances in China today lend themselves to the creation of deadly viruses like COVID-19.

First, China's urbanizing population and rising middle class have money to spend. And like their affluent western counterparts, they want more animal products in their diets. This translates into a booming market for meats and home remedies made from exotic animal parts. The Chinese also differ from westerners in where their tastes lie. Of course, they eat pork, beef, and chicken as we in the West do, but they also have a taste for exotic meats from wild animals like snakes, bats, deer, turtles, bears, wolf cubs, ducks, peacocks, and a lot of other weird things.

Animals, both domesticated and exotic, are sold in so-called wet markets in many Chinese cities. The conditions in these places are often abysmal, not only from an animal welfare standpoint but also from a hygienic one as well. The stressed animals are kept in cramped cages, all stacked one upon on the other, all factors making these wet markets a dangerous laboratory for virus creation. Think of them as like a petri dish where evolution by natural selection in very unnatural conditions conducts experiments in ways that wouldn't be possible in the wild.

Animals that would never be around each other in nature are crammed together in giant open-air slaughterhouses. The blood, the gore, the pus, the shit, the piss, the tiny cages, the stressed animals, all of these and more, are perfect conditions for viruses to thrive in. Now add humans to the mix, and it becomes a matter of time before a virus mutates and makes the cross-species jump to human hosts.

It looks like this is what happened in Wuhan a few months ago, precipitating the current COVID-19 pandemic. Though we can't know for sure, the coronavirus likely originated from a bat that infected a second species, which then somehow infected us, likely through cross-contamination at one of these gory wet markets.

And so here we are.

Now back to the shame.

The conditions I describe above - a rising Chinese middle class, drastically increased meat consumption, high consumer demand for exotic animal products - are only going to get worse. As we've seen over the last few weeks, a local epidemic in our interconnected world of the early twenty-first century can quickly become a global pandemic before anyone can react, infecting millions and disrupting billions of lives. And we know that global markets hate uncertainty, and there's nothing more uncertain than an aggressively infectious pandemic spreading around the world with no end in sight.

Put bluntly, China needs to change this cultural practice, and if the world has to shame it into acting, then so be it. We all live on this planet together, so maybe a little humiliation is the best way the rest of the world can encourage China to close these wet markets for good. If we don't, then the Chinese government will just wait for this to die down and then re-open them as they did before. That's what happened in 2003 after the SARs outbreak. The government closed the wet markets during the epidemic, and then quietly opened them up again after it was over. This time, China has also banned the sale of exotic animals at local wet markets. But will the ban stick this time? Or, will economic pressures once again force the Chinese government to make exceptions?

If that happens, we'll find ourselves on the next countdown until Mamma Nature's evolutionary lottery churns out some new nasty bug we're totally not ready for. And consider this fever-chilling thought for a moment: scary as it is, and as disrupting as it has been, COVID-19 is the bunny slope of global pandemics. You want something to keep you up at night: imagine a scenario where some mutated virus has the infectiousness of COVID-19 with the 34% fatality rate of MERS. If you're not pissing yourself a little bit at that prospect, then you're not human. If something like that ever happens, the world as we know it will be gone.

So, yes, there should be some stigma on the Chinese brand at the moment. And no, that's not a license for bigots and racists to abuse individual Chinese. It's not their fault. It's their government's for not regulating this better. And so, yes, a little shame on the PRC is called for; that's not much of a cost, given the proven risk we've seen come out of China's slaughter markets. They should feel embarrassed that this mess started under their watch and spread throughout the world.

Leave aside the ethical problems on how the animals are treated in these barbaric slaughterhouses that serve as food markets. If that doesn't move you, then look at the economic, social, and health disruptions this is having on the rest of the world. Are you having fun yet? Hell, just check your 401K and see if you still think what they do over there is their own business.

Or let me put this more bluntly: what they do in those wet markets, and how they do it, now matters to all of us. Maybe it didn't matter much before, but it does now. We can't force them to change, but we can shame them until they do.

China is a rising power that wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. Serving as the world's leading exporter of pandemics is not the way to do that. So, yes, let's call this the Chinese virus. Let's call it that every day, loudly, repetitively, ad nauseam even, and let's record it in our history books as The Chinese Virus. Let's not forget, and let's not let China forget either.

I'm okay with that.

And no, it's not racist, nor xenophobic, to say so. If it is, those words have no meaning anymore. Consider this a necessary critique of an abhorrent cultural practice that puts us all at risk. That, and nothing more. Eventually, folks are going to have to set aside their political correctness unless we want to experience this kind of disruption every few years as some kind of new normal.

Do you?

I don't.

Then let's stop bullshitting ourselves.

Here is an outstanding video put out by Vox which gives some background on the Chinese wet markets and the role they play in global pandemics.