The 1997 bird flu outbreak. The 2003 SARS epidemic. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic. Why do so many new diseases start in China?
In fact, 80% of the new human flu strains the last few decades appeared in China first.
Straight Outta China
The reason behind this is a custom deeply rooted in Chinese society and decisions the Chinese Communist Party took decades ago.
For millennia, Chinese households have kept ducks, chickens and pigs together with the family. This close association has meant a higher probability for viruses to jump the species barrier from animals to humans. And most viruses originate from animals, like camels (MERS), chimpanzees (HIV/AIDS) or bats (Ebola).
The 2019 coronoavirus is believed to have been transmitted from bats to pangolins before reaching humans. Where would these three species interact? Chinese wet markets, where exotic wild animals are slaughtered and sold to consumers. These markets were red-flagged by health experts as being breeding grounds for diseases, since live animals are kept in close contact and in unhygenic conditions, escalating the chances of disease transmission.
In fact, after the 2003 SARS epidemic, Beijing shut down wet markets in the country – but allowed them to open only months later. Wet markets were formalised and even encouraged by Chinese government policy since the 1970s, despite the well-known risks involved.
The source of COVID-19 is believed to be a wet market in Wuhan, a city in central China. Following the outbreak, Chinese officials shut down the market and banned the consumption of wild animals. However, unless these restrictions are kept in place and followed through, the world will just have to brace for another viral epidemic in the future.
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