COVID-19 and Wildlife Trafficking
"To me, the weirdest part of this whole situation is the fact that people continue to talk about maintaining normality. Let's face it. Normality has gone out the window."
My morning normal just a few weeks ago was getting on a bus to go to school. Now, my morning normal is discussing what the latest news updates are. Or were, really. It's constantly changing. And when my friend said the above statement, I couldn't agree with him more.
While sitting at my desk, scrolling through YouTube just a month or so ago, I'd come across a TedTalk given by Bill Gates titled "The Next Outbreak? We're Not Ready." It was at that moment that I first gave thought to this disease, one that until then, I simply referred to by the numbers: it kills fewer people than the common flu.
Over the next few weeks, things changed rapidly. People were scared. Shelves went empty, hand sanitizer prices shot up, stocks fell. My school has shut down for two weeks, and the closure is likely to extend. Social distancing has kept us inside for days. People are lined up outside of stores, stocking up on ammunition. The elderly in nursing homes are forced into separation from their families in a time when they need them most. Healthcare providers are working days on end, exposing themselves to the deadly threat while those living paycheck to paycheck have been struck financially. It is a dangerous moment in time for everyone.
But among all this difficulty, there have been a few bright spots. We live in a wonderful age of technology. Despite being physically apart, we are virtually connected. We are connected by the simple fact that we are all human, and we are fighting this battle together.
This quarantine has brought my family closer together than we ever have been before. Every morning, I get to look forward to all of us sitting in our living room, learning, or working together. The social distancing, though stressful, has reestablished our family bond. And I'm sure many people can say the same.
It's also reestablished our collective touch with nature. Unable to visit a movie theater or a restaurant, many of us have been spending time outside alone. Spending time in nature is good for us because we are a part of it, and without the general bustle of life, many of us have been able to go back to the light joy that's left when hearing birds in the trees or feeling the brisk wind. It's good for our physical and mental health. The coronavirus has also given the earth a healing opportunity. According to Nature and satellite data collected by NASA and the European Space Agency, nitrogen dioxide levels produced by fossil fuel combustion have significantly dropped between January and February. The pollution levels are lower than they generally have been in the same period in previous years.
While the effects of this virus have been clear, the causes for it are also important to note.
COVID-19 is a coronavirus disease. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning that they spread between animals and humans. Other zoonotic diseases include swine flu and HIV. Often, viruses are not able to jump between species. The genetic variation is too great, and the environment of a different species wouldn’t be hospitable to the virus. In order to spread, viruses must come in contact with a susceptible host, infect them, replicate themselves within the host’s cells, and get transmitted via bodily fluids to another host. Viruses replicate quickly and each time they do so, they form new mutations. These new mutations are the reason that viruses can occasionally jump between species.
While the actual source of COVID-19 is still unsure, the location of its origin was in a wet market. Wet markets are markets that sell live meat, fish, produce, and other perishable goods. Live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption at that very place. These markets are filled with people and animals. With a variety of animals living in close quarters, infections can quickly spread between different species through pus and blood. These wet markets are hubs for infection and wildlife trade: both legal and illegal. Endangered animals are often trafficked into these kinds of wet markets for profit, each of them carrying their own viruses and/or bacteria that are unfamiliar to human environments. Studies that are being done to trace the origin of COVID-19 are finding possible links to endangered animals that have been trafficked, such as pangolins. Because of health issues like this that arise with poaching and illegal wildlife trade, wildlife trafficking is now being considered not just in terms of conservation, but also under a bio-security and public health lens.
This topic becomes difficult, however, when considering the economy behind it. It is a billion-dollar industry and many lives, animals and humans alike, are involved. While most people are opposed to wildlife consumption, there is some lingering significance to many of these endangered species. For some, being able to purchase these animals for consumption is a sign of wealth. For others, the bones of the animals, such as tigers, are believed to have medicinal properties. Therefore, the solution isn’t just in regulation. It’s also in education. It’s in getting people to understand the importance of protecting endangered species, giving them other opportunities to sustain themselves, and teaching them that it ultimately benefits their own health.
When discussing the pandemic in school, my genetics teacher described it as my generation's 9/11. A catastrophic event that left us in nervous anticipation. An incident that would change life as we know it. And he was right. The world won't be the same after COVID-19. By the time it is over, we will have seen in full scale how it has brought people together, driven people apart, tested the strength of the human spirit, exposed flaws in our systems, and revealed what becomes of nature when we retract our presence. And now, we will finally realize that environmental issues are also public health issues.
Richardson, Miles. “Why Our Connection with Nature Matters.” Psychreg, 15 Jan. 2020, www.psychreg.org/connection-with-nature/.
Callaway, Ewen, et al. “The Coronavirus Pandemic in Five Powerful Charts.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 18 Mar. 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00758-2
Westcott, Ben. “China Has Banned Eating Wild Animals after the Coronavirus Outbreak. Ending the Trade Will Be Hard.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/03/05/asia/china-coronavirus-wildlife-consumption-ban-intl-hnk/index.html.
Evans, Simon. “Coronavirus Has Finally Made Us Recognise the Illegal Wildlife Trade Is a Public Health Issue.” The Conversation, 17 Mar. 2020, theconversation.com/coronavirus-has-finally-made-us-recognise-the-illegal-wildlife-trade-is-a-public-health-issue-133673.
“COVID-19 Coronavirus Epidemic Has a Natural Origin.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 17 Mar. 2020, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200317175442.htm.