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Drive for profit benefits the spread of disease

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Environmental changes mean more risk of viruses being passed from animals to humans
Issue 2691
Bats may have been the source of the coronavirus (Pic: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

Most scientists believe it’s likely that the latest strain of the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, moved from bats to other animal species before being transmitted to humans.

In recent years there’s been a slew of serious new illnesses that developed in a similar way.

The Avian Flu pandemic came from birds and Swine Flu came from pigs.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola are all believed to have originated with bats.

Recent studies have shown that the new coronavirus is likely to have infected livestock sold in markets in Wuhan before transferring to human beings.

Humans have always contracted illnesses from animals, but as urban areas spread into animal’s habitats contact between infected animals and other species become ever more likely.

New viruses have a tendency to be more dangerous than the last. And the huge cities that emerged across the Global South in recent decades make perfect hosts for new diseases.


Millions of poor people are drawn into them in the search for work, and are then packed tightly into slums.

Businesses make profits from those in shanty towns. But they refuse to pay for basic sanitation, a health service, or even a way of separating humans from the animals they keep for food.

When disease strikes, it can travel fast through the cramped working class areas before affecting other, more affluent city dwellers.

Cities also provide new homes for wildlife, such as rats, foxes, monkeys —and bats. Often they find it easier to survive in urban environments. There, food waste and shelter can be easier to come by than forests and jungles ravaged by climate change and development.

These animals become a means of transmitting new viruses to other species.

In all societies poorer people are more likely to catch disease than richer people, but it’s particularly true in the Global South. The poor there are more likely to work in dirty jobs and in close quarters with animals —boosting their chances of encountering disease sources.

Restricted diets and exposure to pollution will mean poor people have weaker immune systems.

And poorer people are also less likely to report symptoms as they are unable to afford medical treatment.

This combined with fear increases the likelihood of disease spreading.


According to Tim Benton, professor of Population Ecology at Leeds university, the problem of new disease patterns can only be understood as part of a wider system.

“Societies and governments tend to treat each new infectious disease as an independent crisis, rather than recognising they are a symptom of how the world is changing,” he said.

“The more we change the environment, the more likely we are to disrupt ecosystems and provide opportunities for disease to emerge.”

There are ways to stop this cycle, but they all involve challenging the primacy of profit.

Building decent houses, improving sanitation, waste disposal and pest control are crucial but costly measures that capitalism should be made to pay for.

So are farming systems developed to avoid risk of cross-infection.

But there also needs to be new thinking about the relationship between people and the wilderness.

Despite the huge risks involved in doing nothing, it seems that is exactly what our rulers are going to do.

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