by Peter Franklin
Friday, 27
March 2020
Factcheck
15:00

Why do these epidemics always start in China?

Part of the reason why many pandemics start in Asia is that this is where most humans live. Credit: Brilliant Maps

Question: Why do these epidemics always start in China?

Answer: they don’t.

Obviously the present crisis started in China, so did the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. However, the 2012 MERS outbreak started in Saudi Arabia. The 2009 Swine Flu pandemic probably started in Mexico. Ebola virus disease first emerged in 1976 in what is now South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it’s thought that HIV/AIDS arose from simian populations in west and central Africa.

All of these diseases are zoonoses — i.e. they are caused by micro-organisms that leap the species barrier from animals into the human population. Zoonotic diseases can emerge just about anywhere, including Europe and North America — though most don’t turn into epidemics.

The risks may be higher in some places than others and the counter-measures less sufficient, but it’s not just one region of the world that’s to blame.

It’s also worth pointing out that part of the reason why many pandemics do start in Asia is that this is where most human beings live. You may have seen a map of the world that features a circle encompassing most of south, east and south-east Asia. Though it covers less than one-sixth of the total land area of the world, more people live inside the circle than outside of it. So — all other things being equal — a lot of stuff is bound to happen there.

Of course, all other things are not equal. The Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t just biological bad luck, but also the result of government actions and inaction. At some point the Chinese government, in particular, will have to take responsibility for what it did and didn’t do.

Other countries will be entirely justified in seeking to hold the regime to account, but it’s vital we do so on the basis of fact not prejudice.

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