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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
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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Livestream Shopping Is Huge In China — Will It Fly Elsewhere?

Streaming video channels of people shopping has been booming in China, and is beginning to win over customers abroad as a cheap and cheerful way of selling products to millions of consumers glued to the screen.

A A female volunteer promotes spring tea products via on-line live streaming on a pretty mountain surrounded by tea plants.

In Beijing, selling spring tea products via on-line live streaming.

Xinhua / ZUMA
Gwendolyn Ledger

SANTIAGO — TikTok, owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has spent more than $500 million to break into online retailing. The app, best known for its short, comical videos, launched TikTok Shop in August, aiming to sell Chinese products in the U.S. and compete with other Chinese firms like Shein and Temu.

Tik Tok Shop will have three sections, including a live or livestream shopping channel, allowing users to buy while watching influencers promote a product.

This choice was strategic: in the past year, live shopping has become a significant trend in online retailing both in the U.S. and Latin America. While still an evolving technology, in principle, it promises good returns and lower costs.

Chilean Carlos O'Rian Herrera, co-founder of Fira Onlive, an online sales consultancy, told América Economía that live shopping has a much higher catchment rate than standard website retailing. If traditional e-commerce has a rate of one or two purchases per 100 visits to your site, live shopping can hike the ratio to 19%.

Live shopping has thrived in China and the recent purchases of shopping platforms in some Latin American countries suggests firms are taking an interest. In the United States, live shopping generated some $20 billion in sales revenues in 2022, according to consultants McKinsey. This constituted 2% of all online sales, but the firm believes the ratio may become 20% by 2026.

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