The $26 trillion Meal

The Twenty-six Trillion Dollar Meal

By Gordon Greaves

Somewhere in Wuhan, a Chinese family sat down to eat a Pangolin. The consequences of that meal are now unfolding – or perhaps unravelling – at a global rate.

A Pangolin is a strange creature. It’s no threat to anyone, moves slowly, eats ants, and its only defence is to curl into a ball and trust its scaly armour, which make it an easy victim for poachers, who simply pick it up. Between 2000 and 2019, more than 895,000 pangolins were smuggled from Africa to the East and Southeast Asia.[i] It has become the most smuggled animal in the world, perhaps because, to Asians, it’s the closest thing to a dragon. By eating a ‘dragon’, some believe they are absorbing its legendary good fortune, strength and power.

So what’s the connection between Pangolins and Covid19?

Flu epidemics have infected humans for thousands of years. Virologists believe the spread of flu in humans occurred when we started domesticating animals.[ii] Most flu viruses originated in wild birds or bats. While some strains are capable of being transmitted directly to humans, most require an intermediate host, although there have been exceptions.

Intermediate hosts are what virologists call a reservoir.[iii] A reservoir-species acts like a catalyst. If you recall your science or biology classes, a catalyst is an agent that causes change. Generally, the reservoir-species is not particularly susceptible to the virus, and it often hosts not just one virus, but many.

In the reservoir, the original virus either combines with another virus (recombination) or it mutates with relevant receptor genes in the host (mutation).[iv] The virus undergoes an antigenic shift to a new, high pathogenicity strain of the flu, which humans have little or no immunity against.[v] Basically, it becomes a super-virus.

That’s where the unfortunate pangolin comes in.

In the wet markets of Asia and South East Asia, it is quite normal for live animals, including bats and snakes, to be slaughtered on the spot for a paying customer. A different animal, say a pangolin, will be slaughtered on the same chopping block moments later for another customer. Open, wet meat becomes easily infected. The sale of wild animal products in China is valued at $74 billion[vi], and most of it is run by organised crime syndicates via the wet markets.

These markets have always been a biological time bomb. “The cages are stacked one over another,” says Professor Peter Li[vii] from the University of Houston, an expert on China’s animal trade, speaking on Australia’s Sixty Minutes, “Animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquids: animal excrement, pus, blood, whatever comes from the animals above.”

“The trade in and consumption of wild animals is not only an animal welfare issue, it’s a human rights travesty as attested by a pandemic that has brought the world to its knees,” said Audrey Delsink, wildlife director at Humane Society International in Africa.[viii]

On 7 February, Shen Yongyi and Xiao Lihua, two researchers at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, identified the pangolin as the potential source of Covid19, based on a genetic comparison of coronaviruses taken from pangolins at the Wuhan wet markets and from infected humans. The sequences were 99% similar.[ix] Other findings dispute this, but there is broad agreement that the intermediate host is most likely to have originated at the wet-markets.

While some virologists like Dr Wolfgang Wodarg[x] believe that the current pandemic is nothing more than the normal seasonal flu cycle, that has been given abnormal media attention[xi], mainstream experts believe Covid19 is anything but normal, and the current measures are essential to contain it.

The WHO classified Covid19 as a pandemic on 30 January. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that Covid19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”

Epidemiologists generally agree that that the 1580 flu outbreak is the first known pandemic, followed by others in 1729, 1781 and 1830.[xii] The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people – that’s more people in 24 weeks, than HIV killed in 24 years.[xiii]

The Hendra flu epidemic in 1994 jumped from bats to humans via horses.[xiv] The SARS pandemic in 2002 is thought to have jumped to humans from civet cats sold in Chinese wet markets.[xv] The 2009 Swine Flu pandemic infected between 10 and 20% of the world’s population and killed over 200,000 people.[xvi] The MERS (Middle-Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) virus in 2018 jumped to humans from camels.[xvii]

When pandemics of this nature strike, it’s not just people who suffer. It’s entire economies. The SARS pandemic cost the world economy about $50 billion in 2003, including a 70% drop in international travel and a 60% drop in hotel occupation, at the peak of the pandemic.[xviii]

Since then, the world has become much more interconnected through trade and travel. Some economists are predicting the fallout from Covid19 could be as high as 30% of global output.

We are already witnessing an almost total shutdown of the world’s economy, which could last anything between two and six months.[xix]

“We are unable to assess the most likely outcome at this stage, as we don’t have visibility on the scale and effectiveness of the possible fiscal and monetary responses that governments and central banks might enact” said Hamish Douglass, chairman and Chief Investment Officer at Magellan Financial Group Ltd. “The fiscal response required to head off the worst outcomes is unprecedented and potentially could be up to 20% to 30% of GDP.”[xx]

Thirty percent of global gross domestic product would be about $26 trillion, based on International Monetary Fund estimates for last year. That’s bigger than the size of the U.S. Treasury market, which was just under $17 trillion at the end of February.[xxi]

“We hope that politicians and central banks will act in time and with sufficient force to prevent a devastating economic collapse,” Douglass said. “We are assessing their efforts as they announce them.”[xxii]

Early indicators suggest job losses in the United States could top 1 million per month between March and June. For sectors like the airline and oil industries, the impact could be worse. If the oil price-war spreads to other sectors, the outcome would be a cycle of debt-deflation that would jeopardize global corporate debt, which is currently twice as large as it was in the 2008 crash.[xxiii]

It may take up to 6 months for businesses to recover after the pandemic. China is already over the worst and its manufacturing systems are slowly ramping-up again. In normal circumstances, once supply is resumed, demand rises simultaneously. However, one cannot predict with any certainty how ‘normal’ the world economy will be, post-Coronavirus. One needs to consider the lag-effect of the damage sustained during the pandemic. It’s likely that consumer spending will remain below par for some time afterwards.

“We can begin to see a recovery in the second half of the year, as companies figure out disruptions from shuttering of production,” Institute for Supply Chain Management CEO Tom Derry said on CNBC.”[xxiv]

Somewhere in Wuhan, a Chinese family sat down to eat a Pangolin. It may turn out to have been a $26 trillion meal.

Earth is now a planet carrying 7.6 billion humans, many impoverished and starved of protein, others affluent, wasteful and able to criss-cross the globe by airplane. The global population has never before been so unequal, and the middle class has never before had such easy access to global travel. In the 4,5 billion years of Earth’s history, there is no precedent for a species that has overwhelmed the planet to the extent that humans have.

The word corona comes from the Latin word for crown. Homo Sapiens likes to believe it is the Earth’s crowning species. But have we behaved as a good king should? A good king uses his power to sustain and protect his subjects. A good king rules with compassion, treating his people with dignity. In return, they provide taxes and resources to sustain the kingdom.

Homo Sapiens first appeared on this ancient planet about 200,000 years ago. That’s an eye-blink in Earth-time. We only left Africa between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago. Around 40,000 years ago, we eliminated our only competitor, Neanderthal man, and since then, we have used our king-like status as the planet’s ultimate alpha-species appropriate its resources as if there was no tomorrow.

We not only enslaved one another, we plundered the rest of planet as well, treating other species not as sentient, emotional beings, but as mere sources of protein, status symbols or as totems to cure our ills or provide us with good fortune.

We have acted with similar disregard to our environment: clear-cutting our forests, over-fishing our seas, spewing pollution into the air, rivers and water. The human kingdom has been at war with Earth for centuries, raping the planet in a manner that would make the worst dictator blush.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sixth Extinction, records five previous catastrophic mass extinction events that almost destroyed all life on the planet between 440 million and 65 million years ago. They were natural catastrophes: ice ages, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes. The sixth event is being caused by Homo Sapiens: “Having discovered subterranean reserves of energy, humans begin to change the composition of the atmosphere. This, in turn, alters the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. Some plants and animals adjust by moving. They climb mountains and migrate towards the poles. But a great many – at first hundreds, then thousands, and finally perhaps millions – find themselves marooned. Extinction rates soar, and the texture of life changes.”[xxv]

Covid19 is a reminder that there is a tomorrow, that we have been decidedly bad kings, and we are now reaping the whirlwind.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic wrote in the New York Times in January this year. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”[xxvi]

When a virus infects a host, it kills it by slowly changing its metabolism. Covid19 is a perfect reflection of our own actions as a species. Humans have infected the Earth. We have slowly changed its metabolism.

We should not be surprised when the planet fights back. It’s trying to cure itself. All it took was a humble African pangolin.

Covid19 is a warning. The Earth has existed for billions of years before we arrived. The animal and plant species that were once so abundant have also been here much longer than we have. They evolved over millennia in a synergistic relationship, providing oxygen, water, nutrients and a thousand other services that are vital to the health of the planet. It is a highly complex and interconnected system, and it is one which we started to break almost from the outset. It is a relatively easy task to track the early expansion of Homo Sapiens out of Africa: just follow the trail of extinct animals.[xxvii]

Up to now, the Earth has tolerated our presence, but the harsh reality is that while humans need her; she does not need us. It’s like finding out the girl you had a crush on is really not that into you. It’s actually worse than that. Truth be told, we have become a regular pain in her ass.

So maybe it’s time for Homo Sapiens to grow up. It’s time to behave less like a king and more like a father. His wife is Earth, and his children are Plants and Animals. If he wants to keep his family, he’d better listen to his wife.


[i] “Calls to crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade grow amid coronavirus outbreak.” Earth Journalism Network: 15 February 2020 [ii] Origin of Influenzas: Medical Ecology, Columbia University [iii] Coronavirus Origins: The Conversation, World Economic Forum: 20 March 2020. [iv] “Recombination, Reservoirs and the Modular Spike: Mechanisms of Coronavirus Cross-Species Transmission”: Journal of Virology, R Graham & R Baric [v] “How Pandemic Influenza Emerges”: World Health Organisation, Europe [vi] Business Insider 25 Feb 2020: “China just banned the trade and consumption of wild animals.” [vii] “How Wildlife Trade is linked to Coronavirus” Sixty Minutes Australia: 6 June 2020 [viii] Scales tip in favour of pangolins as hosts of Coronavirus. Daily Maverick. D Pinnock and t Walters. 25 March.[0]=80895&tl_period_type=3&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Afternoon%20Thing%20Wednesday%2025%20March%202020%20Wits&utm_content=Afternoon%20Thing%20Wednesday%2025%20March%202020%20Wits+CID_df042fd2acbaad3085e8f6a9eb65bda0&utm_source=TouchBasePro&utm_term=Scales%20tip%20in%20favour%20of%20pangolins%20as%20hosts%20of%20Coronavirus%20transition [ix] “Did Pangolins spread the China coronavirus to People?” Nature Magazine, 7 February 2020 [x] WissensManufaktur interview with Eva Herman [xi] The Classical Definition of a Pandemic is not Elusive: H Kelly, WHO [xii] History Channel: Influenza (5 eb 2020) [xiii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 1918 Pandemic [xiv] Hendra Virus Disease: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [xv] SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome): World Health Organization [xvi] 2009 Swine Flu Epidemic Death Toll 10 Times Higher than Thought: Live Science, B Gholipour, 26 Nov, 2016 [xvii] Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus: World Health Organization [xviii][xviii] SARS and Emerging Infectious Diseases: a challenge to place Global Solidarity above National Sovereignty. D Heymann (Annals: Academy of Medicine, Singapore) [xix] “The World could need S26 Trillion Stimulus”, A Papuc. Bloomberg, 19 March 2020 [xx] Ibid. [xxi] Ibid. [xxii] Magellan Investments: Global Portfolio Update, 18 March 2020 [xxiii] “Is the Coronavirus Crash Worse than the 2008 Financial Crisis?” Foreign Policy, A Tooze. 18 March 2020 [xxiv] Coronavirus impact: once pandemic ends, businesses may take 6 months to get up and running normally. CNBC, B Booth & E Rosenbaum. 23 Mar 2020. [xxv] The Sixth Extinction. Elizabeth Kolbert. Probetis Books. ISBN-13: 978-0805092998 [xxvi] We made the Coronovirus Epidemic. David Quammen. New York Times, 28 January 2020 [xxvii] The Sixth Extinction. Elizabeth Kolbert. Probetis Books. ISBN-13: 978-0805092998