How to face the threat of other pandemics?

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  18. 04. 2020

Six months ago, if you were to tell people there would be a pandemic that would spread from one of China’s many wet markets and paralyse the world, most people would consider it to have been the unlikely plot of a disaster movie. In reality, however, something similar could have been expected.

Wet market in Laos. Photo: Miroslav Bobek Wet market in Laos. Photo: Miroslav Bobek

The entire history of mankind is one of struggling with diseases that have been transmitted to humans from animals. To give an example of an old one, we could pick measles, while an example of a completely modern form would be Ebola. Our times are particularly dangerous in this sense. Mankind is penetrating ever deeper into nature and is exploiting it intensively, so the possibility of encountering pathogens increases significantly. That is why new diseases transmitted from animals to humans have been increasing in recent decades, and the rate of their spread may be unprecedented thanks to modern modes of transport and our current lifestyle.

It also follows that covid-19 may not be the last pandemic of this kind. We don't know what we’ll have to face next time – but it probably won’t be nice.

What stance should we adopt against similar threats? The first thing to do, apart from investing in research, is to try to eliminate the most dangerous epicentres where pathogens can pass from their animal hosts to humans. China’s wet markets are a typical and, at the same time, highly topical examples. Unfortunately, the information coming from China so far does not allow a clear interpretation of its approach. On the one hand, they have declared a ban on the consumption of wild animals – although it is unclear in some respects – and on the other hand there is an official recommendation to treat covid-19 with bear bile. There is also news that in Shenzhen they have banned the consumption of any animal meat other than beef, pork, chicken, etc., which is immediately followed by reports that the trade in wild animals has started again in Dongguan. So, you choose…

But it's not just China; customs in some other countries are not much different. Fortunately, opinion polls conducted in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong have shown that the vast majority of respondents are in favour of getting rid of the wild animal markets and, for example, Vietnam has declared a change in its approach to this type of illegal trade. However, in light of what I see in connection with covid-19 here in the Czech Republic, I say to myself: please let it last.

On the other hand, tropical Africa, which is another significant incubator of dangerous diseases, gives no reason for optimism. The countries that are exposed to tourism, report that poaching is increasing due to the loss of income from abroad. And, as concerns many other African states, I don’t have any illusions. Every loosening of the reins leads to massive destruction of the natural environment, poaching and the renewed consumption of bushmeat.

We could look at other parts of the world in a similar manner. Above all, however, we must realise that the trade in and illegal handling of wild animals is just the tip of the iceberg. Even this notional peak represents a large and perhaps indigestible morsel. But below the surface there is an even greater and more serious problem: that being, how we humans treat living creatures, nature and the environment.