With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government has been criticized for attempting in the early days of the Wuhan outbreak to downplay its significance. Some of the criticism is fair, but the root cause of the pandemic goes much deeper than that. And if we’re to safeguard ourselves from future pandemics we need to be aware of what the cause is. Here’s a quick overview.
The COVID-19 virus is part of a family of viruses known as coronaviruses. They typically reside in mammals and birds, and are zoonotic, which means they can transfer from animals to humans.
Coronaviruses aren’t the only viruses/bacteria that have that capability. Rabies and the plague are two historical examples of diseases that transfer from animals to humans. More recently, there’s been Lassa fever (1969), Ebola (1976 and 2014-16), HIV (c. 1980) and assorted avian and swine flus — most recently, H1N1 in 2009. Then within the coronavirus family, we had SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012.
The primary factor driving the increase in zoonotic outbreaks, science suggests, is the ongoing expansion of humans into wilderness areas. Think of what’s going on today in Brazil, with the slashing and burning of the Amazon rainforest to clear land for farming and ranching. Same in Indonesia, where rainforests, including the last habitat for orangutans [see below], are being cut and burned for palm oil plantations. In Africa, it’s mining companies searching for gold, diamonds and rare earth minerals.
What all that gnarly profit-driven exploitation is doing is shrinking animal habitat and reducing bio-diversity. That brings animals into closer contact with each other, which facilitates disease transmission within species, and also between species. From there, the likelihood grows that given the right conditions, a viral illness will jump from its animal host to a human.
It’s not automatic that when a person gets infected (say, by being bitten by an insect or eating a piece of infected meat) that the virus will transfer to other humans. But when a virus is able to do that, you’ve got the makings of a pandemic.
So just to sum up, with our relentless drive to exploit Earth’s natural resources for our material comfort (and greed), we’re literally unleashing pandemics on ourselves. You can get more information in this on-line article.