Coronavirus: A Pandemic Born Of 'Strange' Culinary Tastes?

The epidemic unnerving the world originated in the Wuhan shellfish market, where other local delicacies are sold. But does that matter?

A market in Wuhan, China
Héctor Abad Faciolince


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.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.



• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.


"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."


Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

➡️


$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.


It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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