Last week, scientist Yuen Kwok-yung, who has been the chief advisor to Hong Kong on the new coronavirus, published a widely controversial op-ed along with his college David Lung.
The two microbiologists defended the use of the term “Wuhan virus,” stating that the Communist Party’s effort to distance China from the virus is an attempt to evade responsibility.
But their other points were more shocking and disappointing. Especially when Yuen is a local hero of many Hongkongers, including myself, having earned respect for his efforts in battling the 2003 SARS and the current coronavirus.
They argued that “inferior Chinese culture” is to blame for the epidemic originating in Wuhan, and these “ugly habits” show that mainlanders have not learnt their lesson from the 2003 SARS outbreak. They have since retracted their comments, claiming that the article was misinterpreted.
Nonetheless, this echoes an extremely popular view in Hong Kong as well as the wider world. Indeed, the idea of eating a black, furry rat-like creature which flies with two flaps of see-through skin grown between its limbs can seem rather repulsive to anyone who has not grown up in a culture where this is done.
But Chinese people are in no way the only ones who eat bats. This has, in fact, been done in many cultures in Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Africa, and even Europe. Europeans are no strangers to consuming snails, eels, frog’s legs, brains and guts.
Personally, I have lived with indigenous Australians who consume these nutritious and delicious creatures, which they can easily capture in large numbers.
Closer to home, bat-eating can be seen in every country in Southeast Asia except Singapore. Bats are consumed for medicinal purposes in India, Pakistan, and also Bolivia.
In Central and West Africa, at least 55 species of bats are hunted for food.
Even in Europe where the small size of the native bat species makes them a less worthwhile prize for hunters, there are historical records of bat consumption in Italy.
Though eating bat is quite unheard of in Hong Kong, much of what we eat traditionally can be considered very strange by westerners: toads (a.k.a. “field chicken”), snakes, pigeons, cow lungs, chicken intestines… you name it.
Of course, these are slowly fading out of our culture as many in my generation (including myself) are too westernised and/or too privileged to even consider trying these nourishing ingredients, despite the fact that traditional wisdom assures us they are extremely beneficial to one’s health.
But as evidence indicates that hunter-gatherer societies experienced far less malnutrition than the farming societies which came after, perhaps it is time for us to rethink the logic (or the lack thereof) behind the common Eurocentric view of food and diet.
How many people protest the alleged cruel conditions in which wild animals were kept in the Wuhan live-animal market after being captured, while eating a nice breakfast made with eggs from a factory-farmed hen who spent her entire life in a stinking “battery cage” without ever seeing a moment of day-light?
How many are disgusted with the idea of Chinese people eating dogs or cats, when they would have no problem chowing down mass-produced pork made from perfectly intelligent pigs who lived in stalls so small that they could not even turn around?
And how many of us take for granted the consumption of caged creatures pumped full of drugs and hormones, while labelling “uncivilised” any consumption of unusual wild animals that have in fact spent their lives without the stress of captivity or the pollution of agricultural chemicals?
Modernisation – which came with westernisation for most of the world – has brainwashed us into thinking that eating anything wild is dangerous, even though they might, in fact, be a healthier choice of food source.
This mentality is directly responsible for the waning popularity of the consumption of wild and naturally free-ranging animals, as well as eccentric-looking heirloom vegetables which do not fit on supermarket shelves or cannot be as easily mass-produced. With the diminished number of people interested in growing/ hunting their own food, or buying from small local producers, the majority of us have become completely dependent on the system.
And what a convenient coincidence that this for those in control of society, who profit from our severed connection with nature, staying in power by keeping us in our city jobs (not unlike battery hens), and coaxing us into spending our hard-earned dollar on plastic-wrapped farmed animal parts sold under the white lights of supermarket chains.
But for the powerless like us, it is not at all in our interest to blame people with different culinary traditions to the modern western culture for the recent pandemic. This only diverts attention from the real culprit of the Wuhan virus – the authoritarian government of China.
The new coronavirus is not the first time a health crisis has been caused by the consumption of infected animal products. Mad cow disease and the avian flu did not make people brand beef or chicken consumption as uncivilised, so why should the Chinese be blamed for eating bats?
If anything, these diseases linked to beef and chicken only produced some mild call for the reviewing of hygiene standards and the treatment of these farmed animals, which might also be applicable to the wild-game trade. But the demonisation of eating unusual animals, in general, will only cause discrimination.
Beijing, on the other hand, has full responsibility of this worldwide epidemic through their deliberate withholding of information, as well as active persecution of those who tried to inform the community when the virus could still have been controlled. Tyrants like these are the real threat to our lives, not those who eat bats.
We cannot learn from history if we do not have an accurate interpretation of it. Avoiding the same mistake in the future means holding the wrongdoer accountable today – and in this case the guilty party is the cold dictators in China whose only concern is power and control, and not the unlucky Chinese people who are their victims, just like the rest of us.