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Humans – doing it to themselves

Written By: - Date published: 11:48 am, June 23rd, 2020 - 30 comments
Categories: covid-19, health, Social issues - Tags: , ,

Back in the 1990s, in the days when I still had time to pursue sidetracks, I did a remote history course. Never completed it because work broke in on it. However I did write an essay on zoonotic diseases and their effect on history and implications for the modern world of air-travel. So covid-19 came as no surprise to me.

About the only thing that surprised me was that it took so long for a pandemic to really break out into the human world. Because our evolutionary and recorded history is mainly punctuated and constrained by disease and environmental change. We invented large cities many times in the past and lost them to plague or drought. It looks like we’re going through that phase again – just at a large level.

There is a great piece over at The New York Times that runs through this in reasonable detail “How Humanity Unleashed a Flood of New Diseases“. The first part is a bit of a reconstruction. But the authors start getting into the meat of it when they describe what the disease process in the backlands of human society. I’ve highlighted in italics, what I suspect was the difference between covid-19 and its close cousin SARS.

There is much we don’t know about the origins of the ongoing pandemic and some details that we may never learn. Though genetic sequencing currently indicates that horseshoe bats are the ultimate source of SARS-CoV-2, it’s possible another animal will eventually prove to be the vector. Bats may have initially infected livestock or more exotic captive creatures raised on one of China’s many wildlife farms. Perhaps the bats (or another vector) were smuggled across the southern border from a neighboring country, like Myanmar or Vietnam. Or maybe the virus was intermittently infecting animals and people in rural areas for years before finally finding a route to a major city. Regardless of SARS-CoV-2’s precise trajectory, experts agree that Covid-19 is a zoonosis, a disease that jumped from animals to humans.

The market in the cities is the end of the journey that probably started much earlier. Viruses aren’t there to make a fuss about killing or making people sick. Their only ‘interest’ is in breeding copies of themselves. Mostly zoonotic diseases that kill are the ones that haven’t adapted to a new host well yet. The SARS outbreak in the early 2000s died because it was ill-adapted to humans – those infected appear to have almost always gotten sick at the same time that they had severe symptoms. That landed their hosts in hospitals in isolation. Covid-19 is less obvious. Most don’t get severe symptoms, and infection of others typically starts before any symptoms appear.

But the reason why we’re getting an increased incidence of zoonotic diseases – well humans are largely at fault.

Zoonotic pathogens do not typically seek us out nor do they stumble onto us by pure coincidence. When diseases move from animals to humans, and vice versa, it is usually because we have reconfigured our shared ecosystems in ways that make the transition much more likely. Deforestation, mining, intensive agriculture and urban sprawl destroy natural habitats, forcing wild creatures to venture into human communities. Excessive hunting, trade and consumption of wildlife significantly increase the probability of cross-species infection. Modern transportation can disperse dangerous microbes across the world in a matter of hours. “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations,” David Quammen wrote in his 2012 book “Spillover,” “while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.”

The NYT article goes at great length about this. But clearly the real issue for humans is how to prevent the next outbreak. Because we will get more. At present we’re getting these zoonotic diseases in severe outbreaks every decade, and it is likely that the rate will increase over time and as the habitats get smaller for diseases in wildlife. And of course some specific human behaviours are outright dangerous from the viewpoint of disease prevention.

Eliminating zoonoses is effectively impossible. Our survival depends on an intricate web of connections to other living creatures, including micro-organisms. We cannot sanitize the planet or live in hermetically sealed bubbles. We cannot prevent new viruses from emerging. But we can significantly reduce the risk of dangerous pathogens spilling from animals into human populations. In the wake of SARS and the early stages of Covid-19, the most obvious target for reform is the wildlife trade.

The wildlife trade is an ecological aberration: It thrusts species that would otherwise never meet into strained intimacy. Because captive animals are often undernourished and stressed, they are more susceptible to infection. When they are butchered on the spot, which happens in certain live-animal markets, their bespattered fluids potentially expose other animals as well as humans. It’s an unparalleled crossroads for infectious pathogens. Urbanization, increasing affluence and improved infrastructure, such as new roads into formerly inaccessible wilderness, have bolstered the expansion and commercialization of the live-animal trade around the world.

Of course, in some cases, people depend on wildlife for sustenance. Some 150 million households in Latin America, Asia and Africa hunt wild animals, primarily for personal consumption, according to a 2017 estimate; poorer households tend to rely most strongly on wild meat. Among the middle and upper classes of China’s growing urban population, the trend of eating wild creatures has less to do with survival than status: a way to signal wealth and honor guests. According to another 2017 study, meat consumption in China has increased by a third since 2000, more rapidly than in any other major economy, and demand for wildlife products of all kinds has surged. Exotic meat has appeal in the West, too: Many thousands of pounds of bush meat — primates, antelope, rodents, birds and reptiles — are smuggled into Europe and North America every year. In the United States, 11.5 million people hunt and sometimes eat animals such as deer, elk, moose, bears, raccoons, porcupines, doves, quail, pheasants, armadillos, squirrels and alligators.

As they conclude..

Ultimately, the prevention of zoonoses demands more than practical interventions; it requires a fundamental shift in perspective. Humans have a long history of treating the world as our stage and other creatures as our props. We pluck rare orchids from remote swamps and ship them halfway around the world, not because we need them but simply because we like the way they look on our windowsills. We kill wild tigers out of fear or for sport and simultaneously breed them in captivity so we can cart mewling cubs to petting zoos and mall photo shoots. Wherever we settle, we eradicate native species and replace them with organisms entirely unfamiliar to that ecosystem. When one of our accidental introductions becomes too problematic to ignore, we often import yet another exotic creature to defeat the first — a strategy that has repeatedly and spectacularly failed.

More than any other entity, viruses and microorganisms expose the fallacy of our tyrannical choreography. We are used to thinking of ourselves as the protagonists of every landscape, but from the perspective of infectious microbes, we and other large creatures are the landscape. As we restructure Earth’s biosphere to suit our whims, we open hidden conduits between other animals’ microbiomes and our own. Once those channels are in place, pathogens can no more stop themselves from spilling into us than water can prevent itself from running downhill. We cannot blame the bats, mosquitoes and viruses. We cannot expect them to go against their nature. The challenge before us is how best to govern ourselves and stymie the flood we unleashed.

Definitely worth reading. Because we’re going to do another covid-19 style pandemic to ourselves again, unless we change what we do to the rest of the biosphere that we all live in.

30 comments on “Humans – doing it to themselves ”

  1. tsmithfield 1

    We all probably are very concerned for people we know who are at risk, and on one level are very pleased that Covid is being held at bay for now.

    But on a more objective level, aren't diseases such as Covid exactly what the planet needs?

    The biggest problem for the planet and the human species is overpopulation and the consequent damage to our environment. Surely then, aren't diseases such as Covid useful controls to keep population numbers in check.

    After all, if it were rabbits rather than humans we would be welcoming the disease.

    • Robert Guyton 1.1

      It's behaviour that needs to be changed, not population. Or rather, as behaviour changes, so to will population numbers and distribution patterns.

      • Dennis Frank 1.1.1

        And to change wrong behaviour, incentives that actually work as planned. Although the old notion of social engineering has a mystical appeal, no?

        Somehow it failed to catch on. Universities didn't start churning out graduates in it. In fact, they didn't even hire professors to teach it to students! Duh!

        • Robert Guyton

          I'm not suggesting a programme to change behaviour, just noting that behaviour will have to change in order to avert disaster. Whether that will happen is up for discussion. The best I'm able to do is change my own.

      • common sense 1.1.2

        Robert i think your right at the most fundamental level. rather than focus on the complexities your going to straight to the cause.. The best path for the species derives from the most suited thoughts. The hardest part will be all parties involved will need to make concessions . Common ground needs to be found by all to provide a solid foundation to build a new society. I was amused to see terence speaking from the grave.. I have listened to that same speech and in context it made perfect sense. At the end of the day it is soley the woman that get to make the decision on bringing new life into the world

    • Andre 1.2

      COVID has an infection fatality rate somewhere in the vicinity of 1%. That's nowhere near high enough to have any significant effect on our population trajectory. Hell, up until maybe 40 years ago when vaccination had really got on top of long-term scourges like measles, polio, smallpox etc, COVID would have likely been treated as a "meh", just another nuisance disease blowing through.

      What's needed to tackle our overpopulation problem, and it really is a problem despite those obsessed with the other real problem of inequality like to say to the contrary, is a cultural shift away from large families. Even to the point of celebrating those who choose to not reproduce.

      Disease isn't a good way to achieve that cultural shift – indeed it's quite likely a factor in the historical prevalence of large families being a status symbol.

      Education, particularly of girls, along with creating opportunities for paths to success that don't involve trashing the environment are a better path forward.

      • Robert Guyton 1.2.1

        Terence McKenna's mushroom ally told him, "One mother, one child". The mathematics he developed since shows it's an effective strategy.

        • greywarshark

          Girl's education, gaining jobs, adequate incomes instead of multi-babies as a way of gaining a plateau of wellbeing is 20th century. Now we have the technology of speed and greed for power, money and luxury goods, and selfish following of curiosity that drives leaders and people who feel superior. People getting ahead through education is not on the same path it was.

          We are getting more like Brave New World control all the time, and babies there were grown for a purpose, not left to chance and human behaviour. So think forward, while remembering back and decide what to do, don't leave it to the players on the Ramtops (Pratchett).

        • Andre

          When it comes to matters that can be presented accurately in written format, I find the video format mind-numbingly slow and intensely irritating. It's generally full of contentless filler, and is deathly slow but also imprecise when it comes to communicating actually useful information. Sorry.

          So I went looking for something written that's covers what Rosling is saying, and came across the link below suggesting Rosling is a little too relaxed about the severity of the overpopulation problem.


    • lprent 1.3

      The biggest problem for the planet and the human species is overpopulation and the consequent damage to our environment. Surely then, aren't diseases such as Covid useful controls to keep population numbers in check.

      The worst zoonotic diseases are in our past when there weren't large populations. Things like smallpox (probably cattle), measles (cattle), TB, etc..

      Try https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoonosis#History

      They killed when there wasn't population density.

      Basically we didn't drag too many nasty infectious diseases in from our ancestry because they wound up with time to adapt. But there are some cases of well-known ancestral diseases – even obvious zoonotic ones

      For instance of the two variations of the human simplex virus (ie herpes) don't usually kill people or make them very sick (apart from embarassment), the oral version probably came from hominid ancestors. The genital version jumped from a prototype chimp. There is a entertaining PDS program I scanned the other day…


      But basically, diseases do things for their own reasons. Humans cause their own diseases from their behaviour. It is hardly a moral issue – more of a behavioural one. If you tame or eat wild animals, you’ll get their diseases as part of the package.

      Most women can tell you the basic rule without hesitation – don't act like dickheads – it is far safer.

    • McFlock 1.4

      We had RCD. Rabbits are still a problem.

      It's the major flaw in Thanos' "snap" solution: if Earth is anything to go by, killing half the people in the universe will simply take us back to where we were around 1970. It's not the number of people that's the problem, it's the growth rate in population and resource use.

      Pandemics just kill people, there's some social change but not the massive long term pivot in resource use we need.

  2. Dennis Frank 2

    People will have to smarten up around Darwinism, eh? I mean the culling process (not the ideology) of nature. Key point: Excessive hunting, trade and consumption of wildlife.

    Think we may be looking at the pandemic redirecting humanity. Towards vegans as models of survival praxis.

  3. Dennis Frank 3

    I did write an essay on zoonotic diseases

    Presumably after researching the topic. I'm not being facetious. Students do tend to be nonconformist (been there, done that). Anyway it's a belated answer to my question of a while back, thanks.

    the prevention of zoonoses demands more than practical interventions; it requires a fundamental shift in perspective

    Paradigm shifting is damn hard. Try telling anyone you know that business as usual must be eliminated. Okay, we can nuance that somewhat. Infection sources that are part of the established economy must be excised for survival. Sufficiently draconian in a nice, balanced way?

    • lprent 3.1

      Presumably after researching the topic.

      Yep. Damn hard to do in the mid-90s compared to now. I had to get a grad library access to the Auckland University library so I could wander around their bewildering array of departmental libraries. But I did way more reading on the topic than that essay required.

      • Dennis Frank 3.1.1

        I did way more reading on the topic than that essay required

        Which indicates a genuine interest in the field in which the topic was anchored. Given that engagement of interest, I wonder how you see the media role going forward. Have you noticed them soliciting the opinions of experts in the field?

        If not, then we need to ask why they aren't, eh? Globally, more so than here, I mean. Or does public policy get driven by private communications between experts & politicians? Are the media irrelevant??

        • lprent

          Mostly I get the impression that the journos are only asking here and now questions from the epidemiologists.

          Otherwise you'd think that they'd understand some basics about what elimination at the borders means – basically quarantines are just a statistical probability of control. Bags of water like humans are difficult to rule out infection in.

          Why there are always going to be cases post border regardless of how toght you make it. And why the crucial bit is being able to trace, test and contain.

          Basically Jack Vowles is right. The journos need to learn more and know to chill down their hysterics. When you read about historical epidemics and pandemics those kinds of silly gossip/scare tactics kill more people than even the scam artists with quack 'cures'.

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    How to alter human behaviour? Given that even existential bleakness like climate change, doesn’t seem to bother too many millions of people, relative to their daily struggle to survive, that is indeed the question.

    We have a propensity for short term thinking, and collectivism has broken down thanks to neo liberal individualism, and post modernist philosophy–where meaning of any phenomena can be up for eternal renegotiation. Many have cognitive functions like busted mirrors if social media is anything to go by.

    So the simplistic solution is…
    –Retiring capitalism–the billionaires club can all go and live on Richard Branson’s Island and stop bothering the rest of humanity! Or they can go up against the wall if they prefer.
    –Greening the world economy
    –Moving urgently to a plant based diet
    –Sharing resources globally
    –Ending armed conflicts
    –Winding down consumerism and commodity fetishism

    How to achieve all that in time? A fundamental change in class power around the world would suffice…but but but you say?…oh well to paraphrase LPRENT–“it is humans wot dun it then”…enjoy your Snow Piercer and Mad Max futures!

  5. Climaction 5

    If eliminating zoonotics is impossible, when does NZ backdown on its target zero approach?

    and surely wildlife areas providing unique and pristine environments should be off limits as a food source. One can only wonder how many zoonotics exist in such environments

    • Incognito 5.1

      Are you for real?

      It doesn’t have to involve a food source as such. Take malaria, for example, which is transmitted by mozzies. Should we stop putting those mozzies in our porridge and milkshakes? I think they’re quite yummy.

      NZ has eliminated virtually all horseshoe bats and pangolins in the wild responsible for the outbreak here by huge 1080 airdrops, as you know. The borders are closed so that no bats can fly in and land here without undergoing 14 days quarantine. We should keep it up and reach our zero target. Together we can do it /sarc

      • Sacha 5.1.1

        Look, someone credible told me they saw a bat sneaking into one of those quarantine hotels. When will it end!

      • Climaction 5.1.2

        Borders aren't closed are they though incognito? not enough to stop covid entering.

        if it's impossible to eliminate, then it will always be with humanity. better to open up and start living as humans again and accept some risk. this on / off again lockdown approach is detrimental to society.

  6. maggieinnz 6

    I'm not entirely sure there is anything we can do to change things nor do I think that humans are at "fault". Now, humans have done a lot of shit wrong, messed up the planet good and proper but that's not the same as saying we're doing this to ourselves. Evolution happens with or without us, viruses mutate with or without us. Sometimes our paths cross and it's really bad, other times, not so much.

  7. Tricledrown 7

    Woodhouse seems to be trying to exploit the hysteria for a second time no homeless person found at quarantine Dirty politics is becoming a pandemic.

    Hopefully Muddler can show some leadership and stand him down as he won't be in parliament after September.

    • Urban myth is what I think the story is. Anybody on the street had easy access to motels / hotels / lodges / furnished apartments. And a food bag delivered daily. Many of the homeless are very healthy right now ; and have the inclination to stay "indoors" rather than go back to their old ways.

      • Craig H 7.1.1

        I was in Wellington last week, and for the first time in all my travel there as an adult, I didn't see any homeless people on Lambton Quay. Kudos to everyone who made that happen, and long may it continue.

  8. Sacha 8

    Doing it to ourselves.

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