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China’s love for wildlife meat to its authoritarianism — how coronavirus got out of hand

In Episode 413 of #CutTheClutter, Shekhar Gupta explains China's obsession with exotic meats and how its authoritarian system led COVID-19 grow into a pandemic.

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New Delhi: Jim O’Neil, former chairman of Goldman Sachs who currently chairs UK-based think tank Chatham House, took a swipe at India by saying: “Thank God this (coronavirus) didn’t start in somewhere like India, because there’s absolutely no way the quality of Indian governance could move to react in the way the Chinese have done.”

What O’Neil fails to understand is that though India’s public health systems are poor, the country’s disaster management often delivers in times of crisis. It also betrays a lack of understanding on how epidemics become pandemics.

Where China went wrong

The coronavirus likely started in a wet market in the Wuhan province of China, and the country has locked down over 20 crore people. They were able to do it because they are an authoritarian and regimented society. A chaotic society like ours would find doing this tough.

While an authoritarian country can act in an efficient way, China only acted after things got out of hand. If China was a free democracy with a free media and whistleblowers, the first few cases would have informed the world in time that a new disease had broken out.

Initially, the idea was to hide it like an embarrassing family secret, but by the time it got out, it was too late. People from Wuhan had travelled outside the city, turning the illness from an epidemic into a pandemic. In short, the Chinese have acted efficiently, but irresponsibly.

Economist Amartya Sen had once said that where democracies exist, there can be no large scale famine deaths because democratic institutions will work to catch a problem before it goes out of hand. The same applies to epidemics.

Before this, there were only two other epidemics that had turned into pandemics — the influenza pandemic of 1918 and swine flu of 2009. Coronavirus is deadlier than swine flu, since the fatality rate is 1.5-2 per cent, compared to 0.5 per cent of the latter.

Why did this virus originate in China 

In 1978, China had legalised the trade and sale of wild, exotic animals. These meats are from outside the natural food chain that has formed the human diet for millennia. When new animals are introduced, so are new pathogens — ones our bodies are not used to.

The COVID-19 has moved from a wild bat to a pangolin and then humans. Pangolins are endangered animals that are bred and sold in China and considered an aphrodisiac.

When the 1978 wildlife protection law of China was enacted, it had declared that all wildlife was state property and empowered citizens to breed and raise wild animals in captivity — snakes, tigers, bears, and pangolins are some examples.

Until Wuhan happened, these were being openly traded in wet markets. Increasingly, we have seen that these wild animals are bringing in new viruses, and it has to do with the way they are kept and slaughtered.

Is government of India handling things the right way

People in India have been fretting over their children who are abroad, and are worried because of travel restrictions imposed by the government.

But the truth is that there are millions of children in India, too. The government’s tough decision is in favour of the larger common good.

You can watch the full episode of CTC here.


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  1. That’s mean chain’s authoritarian government challenging to western democratic government ?……. ..
    But in other authoritarian or one man government failed !!Iran. …

  2. Good article. Youtube video is even better though bit long – saw it till the end. Accurately pin points the root cause

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