Published: 11:08, March 20, 2020 | Updated: 06:08, June 6, 2023
Lessons from COVID-19
By Paul Stapleton

President Donald Trump has taken to calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus”. In a recent tweet and then in a press conference, he used the same term to describe the cause of the present pandemic, which until now has been universally referred to either as the coronavirus or more recently, the WHO designated COVID-19. This whimsical renaming by such a powerful individual is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is to take the focus off the pandemic while also needlessly attributing blame. It has prompted the NBA’s first Asian-American champion Jeremy Lin to take him to task: “Can you honestly tell me there is ZERO anti-Chinese sentiment in all his characterisations of the virus? Can you honestly tell me Asians aren't being unfairly physically attacked today in the US?”

As everyone knows, some US officials have been trying to connect the virus with China. However, until this time, viruses that have reached the public consciousness have not been given a name associated with their country of origin, but rather the animal from which they have been thought to have originated or especially damaged, for example, swine or bird flu, or a scientific name such as SARS or H1N1, the Spanish flu from 1918 being the one exception.

Trump’s renaming of COVID-19, (his term does not deserve repeating) of course, fits well with his overall modus operandi, which is to use a strategy of diversion through blaming (anyone but himself) and name calling to hide his mismanagement. By attaching America’s main economic and political competitor to his renaming of the virus, apparently he hopes to attribute blame to China, while drawing attention away from the abysmal job he has done toward preventing the United States from suffering the worst effects of COVID-19. Until recently, Trump had been quite dismissive about the dangers it poses, often openly contradicted by his top health advisers.

Even as little as a week or two ago, Trump was claiming time and again that “everything is under control” which gave Americans a false sense of security while undermining the gravity of the situation. Now with the stock market crashing and COVID-19 cases rising exponentially, America’s situation is anything but under control.

Clearly, now is not the time for blaming. However, when all is said and done and we are either immune from the virus having acquired it and recovered, or acquired immunity through a yet-to-be-formulated vaccine, the time will have come for a grand reckoning. And surely, at the top of the list of items for consideration should be a close look at how we treat animals. 

Although COVID-19 has been given a name unrelated to its animal origin, unlike swine or bird flu, most people by now are aware that it crossed the species boundary to humans from an animal, perhaps a bat or pangolin. Undoubtedly, the keeping of these animals in cages in close proximity to humans contributed to the initial outbreak. And although China has taken heat for allowing wild animal markets to exist, still a common practice in some Asian and African countries, the lesson has been learned and these appear to be shut down for good. 

Another well-known flu virus, the swine flu, otherwise known as H1N1, which hit humans in 2009, actually originated in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control operated by the United States government. Curiously, there is no attempt to call this virus “the American flu”. And although the flu pandemic of 1918-19 is now known as the Spanish flu, there are strong indications that its origin was a pig farm in Kansas. Under Trump’s apportioning of blame, however unjustly, both of these outbreaks of flu should rightly be called the American flu.

But enough childishness. The bigger picture here is that these terrible pandemics have their origins with our physical contact with animals, both wild and domestic, both East and West. And this has led to the deplorable treatment of animals as if they are commodities. Now that the animals have got their revenge, if and when a grand reckoning about the present pandemic takes place in months or a year or two from now, leaders need to seriously reconsider our whole model of animal husbandry. Treating animals better is surely one of the key steps towards preventing the next outbreak.

The author comments on local and environmental issues.