Humans Aren’t the Virus

“There have been many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.”

– Albert Camus

It’s time for a confession. Not long ago, I was sitting on the floor in a remote part of India and was given a plate of rice and meat. As a daughter of the Western world, I couldn’t stop myself asking where the meat originated. My hosts gave each other a sidelong glance (never a good sign!) before answering with a smile, “Tribal meat.” It was bat. What local people took for granted as part of their way of life, seemed to me at the time another tale to embellish my adventurer status among friends in Europe. Then, a few months ago, something happened, something that seemed to be from a movie, which no ordinary member of the public expected would ever happen for real.

In one of those (so-called wet) markets where fresh products, including wild animals, are sold in the Chinese city of Wuhan, something went wrong for humans. According to the Chinese government, it was from there, perhaps from a bat, that the COVID-19 epidemic started. Although that origin story is open to growing doubt, nothing changes the fact that the virus spread rapidly, as did the prejudices, misconceptions, and obviously false prophets which trailed closely behind. The angels of the apocalypse, especially conservationists and office-bound experts, quickly demanded the closure of the markets, and a complete, global end to the “poaching”, consumption and “trafficking” of wild animals.

One “detail” overlooked by such conservation enthusiasts – who can usually find a supermarket close to their doorstep, and have the money to buy food there – is that wild animals are both a main source of protein as well as central to the self-identity for many people in Africa and Asia. A good number of Europeans and Americans are not averse to seasonal game on their plates either. But conservationists’ apocalyptic dirges don’t stop there. Blaming the loss of biodiversity and urbanization for causing the disease (although the links are unproven), they are also using the epidemic to push for more “Protected Areas”, and for the “problem” of overpopulation to be “solved.” All this, they claim, is based on science. But it’s not true. In reality, the arguments for banning wildlife consumption and trade, creating more Protected Areas, and dealing with “overpopulation,” derive from speculation, half-truths, deliberate misrepresentations, Western prejudices, and the specter of ecofascism. It could spell disaster for the lands and ways of life of indigenous peoples around the world.

The cannibals and the civilization

“I’m not a racist, I’d be saying the exact same thing if eating habits in New Zealand caused this. Asia and Africa must be stopped from eating wildlife, and these cruel and unhygienic markets closed forever,” writes one of the many tweeters, howling that Africans and Asians are dirty and cruel because of their eating habits – and telling themselves that their views can’t possibly be racist. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not there’s firm evidence linking informal markets to pandemics. It doesn’t matter if many pandemics (some think COVID-19 could be one) have been generated by the farmed animals that “we” love to eat, like chicken and cows. Lethal avian flu, for example, came from domesticated ducks and the famous “mad cow” disease, that hit Brits in the 1990s, came from their beloved cattle. It doesn’t matter that processed meat like hamburgers and hotdogs are thought to result in the deaths of 60,000 Americans a year. “Our” food is still viewed as wholesome, it’s always that of others which is supposedly “unhygienic.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), “the world’s most comprehensive wildlife-conservation organization,” goes further in its claims. It now claims the right, and presumably the duty, to tell people everywhere what they should be eating, and in a tone that ranges from colonial paternalism to absurdly hysterical. “To prevent future major viral outbreaks such as the COVID-19 outbreak, WCS recommends stopping all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption (particularly of birds and mammals) and closing all such markets.”

WCS is the organization best known for running the Bronx Zoo, a place founded by big game hunters where 4,000 animals are now kept in cages. In its attempts to ban the consumption of wildlife, it admits there can be exceptions for, “Indigenous Peoples and local communities for whom other sources of protein are generally not available, and others hunting for their own consumption.” But for those who lack alternatives, it goes on, “We need to make sure that they have access to sustainably produced poultry, fish, invertebrates in some cases, and plant protein.”

There is staggering hubris in the conservationists dictating what kind of food indigenous peoples, and everyone else for that matter, may eat. They obviously don’t care about the symbolic and cultural role that food has for all peoples, from the French to Congo rainforest dwellers – both peoples I know well. You cannot simply replace one protein with another, as WCS itself found in its repeated failed attempts to replace “bushmeat” with beef for people living near Protected Areas in Africa. How society feeds itself, as every junior anthropology student knows, has profound repercussions, and is influenced by social economy, customs, gender, religion, and deep historical associations with the land and its animals.

That’s not the only problem: What happens if we outlaw the trade and consumption of wildlife where there are no other sources of protein available? Do we let more people starve? Is a dependence on industrial food production, with all its enormous environmental, health, and financial impacts, somehow “better” than the sustainable consumption of wild animals?

The latent racism behind pronouncements of good versus bad protein is akin to the differentiation of poachers from hunters in the traditional conservation narrative. Africans who kill game, including plentiful antelope, are “poachers.” Europeans and Americans who shoot elephants and other endangered animals – generally paying big money to do so – are “hunters.” It is no coincidence that conservationists are exploiting the virus to demand not only the closure of informal markets but also more money for its supposed “fight against poaching.” They claim the science supports them. In reality, there is no connection: Some bat species, for example, are not even protected and can be legally hunted.

Many so-called “poachers” who end up tortured, raped and killed by park rangers funded by organizations such as WWF and WCS are in reality innocent indigenous people who hunt to feed their families, or are even blamed whether or not they are actually doing that. A ban on the consumption of wild animals will inevitably bring more violence and repression against vulnerable populations, and will condemn them to more hunger. And of course, it will not stop pandemics.

Too many, too poor

Conservationists have seized the crisis as a chance to criminalize the ways of life of a large part of the world’s population, ways of life they don’t like. It reinforces the false divide between people and wildlife, and potentially vastly increases the size of Protected Areas, whatever the human cost might be.

Unsurprisingly, epidemics in history have always been moments of widespread fear where the most vulnerable and marginalized have paid the highest price. We may believe that we are going through a unique moment in history but in reality plagues and other disasters have affected humanity for millennia.

During the Black Death, which hit Europe around 1348, it is estimated that 30-60% of Europe’s population died. Some Europeans blamed various groups for the crisis: Jews; the clergy; foreigners; beggars; pilgrims; lepers; Romani etc. Those with visible diseases such as acne, psoriasis or leprosy were routinely murdered. During the cholera epidemic that struck Europe in 1832, political and health fears crystallized into identifying the nascent working class as the source. Those in power concluded that epidemics resulted from poor people’s dirty habits; in their new and expanding industrialized capitalist economy, poverty was seen as the disease. The social media hysteria now blaming the virus on overpopulation in Asia and Africa and claiming that “humans are the virus” is nothing new.

Some conservationists are claiming that loss of biodiversity contributed to causing the virus. But those blaming the wildlife trade are largely silent about the main driver of such loss – overconsumption. And they seem to have no problem partnering with some of the most polluting and destructive industries on the planet, including logging companies and arms manufacturers.

Even if one does accept claims of a link between the loss of biodiversity and the spread of the virus, which is highly debatable, blaming the Global South is both racist and pointless. Let’s not forget that the demand for resources behind degraded landscapes and ecological disruption is largely driven by the Global North, not by the supposedly “overpopulated” South. And let’s not forget either that many indigenous and local people who live sustainably in many of the most biodiverse places on Earth are being evicted from their lands, stripped of their self-sufficiency and forced into marginal existence in cities, adding their numbers to urban overcrowding. Who is pushing them? The answer is conservationists, extractive industries, and others in the Global North.

Blaming the poorest and the most vulnerable, and forcing them onto a sacrificial altar in order to protect ourselves and our way of life is “ecofascist,” an ideology which, under the pretext of protecting the environment, seeks to ensure the survival of just one way of life, with its supposedly “superior” people, at the expense of others who are worth less.

The slogan “humans are the virus” ignores the fact that not all humans have contributed to the destruction of the planet, and those who have contributed the most, are those now demanding a ban on wildlife consumption and more Protected Areas. All of this will destroy the life of indigenous peoples, by far the best guardians of our natural world. A real answer to our environmental problems would require bringing tribal peoples into the heart of the discussion, prioritizing their voices, and recognizing their land rights.

Some argue that the devastation caused by the Black Death in 14th century Europe provoked a shift in thinking which contributed to the emergence of the Renaissance. The coronavirus may also have far-reaching consequences for how we view the world and human society. Will the ecofascists win and exploit fear and panic to gain acceptance for their abhorrent views? Or, will there be a new “renaissance” where we recognize that human diversity is the key to protecting our planet, and accept that living off wildlife is key for many of the world’s cultures, and has little or no connection to species extinction or deadly viruses? The answer, as always, is at least partly in our hands.

Fiore Longo is a Research and Advocacy Officer at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples. She is also the director of Survival International France. She coordinates Survival’s conservation campaign, and has visited many communities in Africa and Asia that face human rights abuses in the name of conservation.