The Origin of Plagues: From Mao to Trump

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On July 1, 1958, the ruler of China, Mao Tse-tung, said farewell to the god of plagues. Mao’s celebration was short lived. The god of plagues has been ravaging China and the rest of the world to this day of the existential corona pandemic in 2020.

China started the twenty-first century with a plague. According to Yanzhong Huang, professor of diplomacy at Seton Hall University, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) plague of 2002 caught the government of China unprepared. This was as much a blow to public health as it was a political embarrassment to the Communist Party.

Politicians and doctors from the time of Mao to the time of Trump have treated plagues like so many other diseases: temporary harm exorcised with drugs and vaccines.

In 2020, however, the plague of the corona virus demands a different philosophy: sensitive to the nature, harmony, and extreme vulnerability of the world. Humans are one of millions of species. They cannot crush wildlife and expect immunity from such violence. Aristotle was right: nature is perfect: it does nothing in vain.

Chinese Dao thinking goes a step further. It considers nature being ourselves. Humans and nature are one. According to the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi / Chuang-tzu, “Heaven, Earth and I came into being together, and all things and I are one.”

Developers and business men are wrong. Nature is not dead and divorced from us. There are repercussions to everything we do in the natural world. We are connected to all animals, plants, waters and the stars.

The corona virus did not just happen from nowhere. It has a history and it is a warning. It has become a lesser version of Black Death. It has practically turned the world off: forcing people to stay home, closing sports, theaters, shopping malls, restaurants, schools, libraries, churches, business — and causing gigantic unemployment, impoverishment, and shrinking of the economy.

I walk and bike in the deserted streets of my beautiful hometown in Southern California. I feel the sense of isolation and anxiety pervading everything. The few people I see are wearing masks. The moment they see anyone coming their way, they cross the tree-lined boulevard. We greet each other, pleased that civilization is still alive. They are walking their dogs.

This local, national, and global paralysis, however, is more than unprecedented. It has the potential of turning the planet back to the dark ages, even disrupting and annihilating civilization.

The other alternative, the silver lining of the pandemic, is potentially forcing a rethinking of the very political, military, and economic system that keeps giving birth to pandemics.

Agribusiness roots of the plague pandemics

In 1976, I wrote Fear in the Countryside, my first book. I denounced the so-called agricultural development of the tropics, then baptized as the Green Revolution. This effort of making global the petroleum farming of America, which required the stealing of the land of peasants, was primarily funded by the World Bank and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

My anger at that ecumenical homogenization  and land grabbing went deep. My father was a peasant who raised our food with traditional farming. But here I was in America and at Harvard studying the effects of machine and chemical-agriculture on my father’s agrarian culture, still dominating most non-Western countries.

This was the decade of the 1970s when America was bombing Vietnam to the Stone Age over abstract misunderstandings of communism and bitter, life and death cold war rivalries with the Soviet Union (Russia).

My research demonstrated the wisdom of traditional farming and the harm of petroleum agriculture. Peasants like my father knew how to raise food without destroying nature and wildlife.

Yet petroleum agriculture is the dominant global paradigm of modernity and food. The world in 2020 is mostly “producing” food with gigantic machines and unfathomable quantities of toxic fertilizers and chemicals.

Loggers, commercial farmers, and landless peasants are burning and flattening forests like the Amazon to produce feed for cattle, ending on the plates of customers of fast food restaurants and in the diet of rich people.

These endless sacrifices on the altar of ecocide have revived and reinvigorated the god of plagues.

Wildlife and the plague pandemics

Peter Daszak, a zoologist with extensive experience in China, is director of the New York-based non-profit Eco Health Alliance. He has studied the origins of viruses for several years. He links development projects and rural people to disease footprints in the natural world.

In other words, loggers and soybean farmers are in places where they should not be: habitats reserved for wildlife, which, when disturbed, facilitate the movement of viruses — like the corona virus – to human society in a big way.

In an April 16, 2020 interview, he highlighted the anthropogenic origins of the corona virus pandemic.

He ridiculed the idea that corona virus was a product of biological warfare. He said:

“The idea that this virus escaped from a [Chinese] lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab [in China] for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world.”

He is angry that the Trump administration has politicized the origins of the pandemic. He prides himself in studying the origin of emerging diseases, saying that about seventy-five percent of every new emerging disease “originate in wildlife.”

He explained why wildlife is full of viruses:

“Every species of wildlife carries viruses that are a natural part of its biology, a bit like we have the common cold and herpes, cold sores. They don’t really do much to the species in the wild, but sometimes when we make contact with them, we pick up those viruses, and they can be lethal. Most times they’re not, but every now and again we get a lethal virus. And we estimate there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future….

“We can trace back the origins [of corona virus] by looking at the genetic signal within the virus itself. So we sequence out the gene from the virus, the genome, and then we compare it to others. And when we do that, we see that the viruses in people, the closest relative of those are from bats. This is not unusual. Bats happen to carry a lot of different viral species. There are many different bats around the world that carry their own viruses. We make contact with them. Often we don’t see them. They fly at night [to feed on insects]… And we pick up their viruses. SARS coronavirus, the original virus, emerged from bats. Ebola virus is a bat-origin virus. Rabies and many others.”

Daszak explained that the huge diversity of bats in Southeast Asia has been a bridge for the movement of viruses to humans. Those peasants who live close to bat caves cannot escape the bats and their viruses. Bats fly over them every night. They “urinate, defecate, maybe onto their food or into their drink.”

Second, rural people go into the caves of bats, seeking their guano / feces for fertilizer. Most of those people are subsistence peasants who supplement their diet with wildlife, including bats. That assures they get exposed to the viruses of the bats.

In addition, there is a market for selling alive and dead bats. The Wuhan market in China has been a great market bringing together lots of people and wildlife like bats. This and other markets, Daszak says, are really “good places for a virus to spread.”

Daszak then speaks about people encroaching into wildlife habitat, opening new roads into forests for mining and logging and subsistence agriculture. That, he says, represents “a global trend that will drive the rise of future pandemics.”

He recommends we rethink our relationship with the natural world, at minimum “reduce our ecological footprint.” He even turns to “folks on the right,” asking them, “what about your own health? You know, we are making ourselves sick by making the planet sick.”

Daszak says he and his Chinese colleagues found a huge diversity of “bat-origin coronaviruses.” The bats keep “spilling [plague viruses] over into people.” As a result, about 3 percent of rural people in Southwest China have antibodies to wildlife viruses. Every year about 1 to 7 million people across Southeast Asia are infected by the bat virus. “So,” he says, “it’s not just an expectation that we’ll have more events. It’s a certainty.”

Daszak is also concerned about many other viruses he came across in his research in China. He laments we know practically nothing about those viruses. His hope is that we should study them before they make us sick.

In addition, he insists we should help poor tropical countries to deal with the viruses because that way we protect ourselves as well. “It’s a right-wing agenda and a left-wing agenda,” he says.

What needs to be done

On April 22nd, we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Earth Day. What better gift to ourselves and our Mother Earth than taking seriously and acting on the signals it emits in distress: preeminently, the signals of corona virus and climate change.

I found the insights of Peter Daszak on the corona virus extremely useful and timely. I would have suggested the United States follows up, but with Trump in charge, nothing would happen. The World Health Organization, however, ought to implement his strategy for reducing the certain harm of repeated pandemics.

Daszak knows what he is talking about. His take home lesson is that we are to blame for the corona virus: “It’s our everyday way of going about business on the planet that seems to be driving this,” he says. Business as usual equals plagues.

Here we are acting like we came from outer space, invading and conquering this beautiful planet, home to people, science and civilization and myriad forms of life for millennia. Time is still with us to change our barbarian ways or we are doomed.

The first thing that needs to happen on a global scale is strict population control and the reversal of inequality. China is a model for both.

Poor rural people should not be forced to hunting bats for survival. Break up the large haciendas and agribusiness farms and give small pieces of land to landless peasants. Join their traditional methods with the science of agroecology and you have a productive and sustainable way of raising food.

If and when the virus takes a vacation, we must slow down and stop logging, mining, and subsistence or commercial farming in forests. In other words, leave wildlife alone.

The international community must force Brazil to stop burning the Amazon for the production of cattle feed. Start with a boycott of Brazilian feed. Those countries buying feed from Brazil need to say enough with forest fires for meat. In fact, stopping eating meat would be a boon to our health and the health of the natural world.

China and other tropical countries must stop rural people from eating bats. “Bush meat” should become illegal.

We should not forget this pandemic is taking place in the age of climate change, another anthropogenic calamity surrounding the planet.

We need global policies and institutions that diminish the violence of climate change and, at the same time, protect wildlife from human encroachment. A World Environment Organization could do exactly that: see that the world abandons its fossil fuels addiction for solar and other forms of renewable energy while enforcing strict international standards protecting wildlife and its habitats.

Our lives are now at stake. Subsistence farmers, agribusiness men, billionaires, right-wind conservatives and Marxists would agree they would not want to become victims of the angry god of plagues: the very viruses of their careless technologies and policies affecting nature.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.