BOGOTA — I think we are all fascinated by the strange things different people around the world eat, or are said to eat. That's especially true of China, a great country with thousands of years of wisdom behind it, but also of famines. And it may be those repeated bouts of shortages that explain the Chinese habit of eating practically anything that moves: crickets, roaches, snakes, lizards.
We know that the coronavirus epidemic unnerving the world and prompting us to read the paper like some daily fix of horror originated in the Wuhan shellfish market. But this market, now evacuated and disinfected in December, didn't just sell shellfish. Vendors also sold an array of bugs and creatures like live snakes for mincing, "medicinal" lizards (what our Science Minister calls "ancestral knowledge") and especially bats — for soup.
It would not seem easy at first sight to discern symptoms of pneumonia in a bat. You would probably have to have hearing powers as formidable as those of the Jonathan Swift character, who could hear flies cough. These days such signs are not heard, or observed in a snake's demeanor, but found in a laboratory where the 2019-nCoV was recently revealed (as published in the medical journal The Lancet). It was a very similar virus to those frequently found in bats, which makes them the probable origin.
Zoonotic viruses, or those transmissible from animals to Homo sapiens, can jump the species barrier for a coincidental mutation that allows them to find a home, replicate and propagate themselves among humans. They can be particularly harmful for us because, while a bat's immune system has managed to develop defenses against them over centuries, the illness is unknown to our immune system. That aggravates the virus's symptoms and raises the mortality rate.
In a world of more than 8 billion people, 10,000 infected with the coronavirus seems negligible, almost risible. And if the mortality rate is "only" at 2% of the infected (rather than 10% as with the SARS epidemic about 20 years ago), and almost all of them among the elderly with other infirmities, the global alarm and China's countermeasures may seem exaggerated.
It does seem strange that 50 million people should become pariahs.
The paradox is that while this virus, like SARS, may be sourced in some rather extreme culinary habits, their effective control also requires the extremist measures being taken against the freedom of movement, which can only be done in an authoritarian state. Imagine the populations of several cities the size of Bogotá and Medellín (up to 50 million people) seeing themselves confined to their towns or even homes, and barred overnight from taking any land or air transport under pain of imprisonment, with a ban on anyone entering those cities.
Such orders are only obeyed in a country used to obedience, where the authorities can decide on the scope of personal liberties. Right now a population as big as Colombia's is living in quarantine: enclosed, isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.
China's effort is immense. They have taken implacable measures in spite of their tremendous social and economic costs. The World Health Organization has declared a global alert and together, these measures will probably impede the virus spreading uncontrollably worldwide. Political decisions, medical knowledge and quick information for people (and tons of face masks) appear to be working.
But it does seem strange that 50 million people should become pariahs because a few of them had a taste for bat soup, and because a virus jumped from the creatures into the lungs of a couple of people who sell and eat oddities.
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