Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

One of China's classic paradoxes is that it is a modern country and a developing country at the same time.

Western cruise lines were attracted to China in the 2000s by the movement of people into the first-world economy, which today promises electric cars and 5G connectivity. China was developing a larger middle class, and the middle class loves to go cruising.

But those developing-country aspects of China didn't go away, and now one of them is coming back to haunt the cruise lines in the form of a virus that has effectively quarantined a nation of 1.4 billion people.

The coronavirus that has, for now, shut down cruising from Shanghai, emerged from a market in the industrial city of Wuhan where wild animals such as civets, snakes, ostriches and baby crocodiles are sold for human meals.

Although scientists are still puzzling it out, an emerging theory about how the coronavirus got started is that it jumped from animals to humans through wildlife consumption. China has now banned the trade in wild animals until the epidemic is brought under control.

Cruising is far from the only hospitality business impacted -- Walt Disney Co. has closed its resorts in Shanghai and Hong King, airlines have stopped service to China. And in the past, fast-spreading viruses new to the human population haven't proved to be a long-lasting problem for the cruise industry

But as the industry continues to expand globally, it is moving into corners of the world where the contagion risk is there. In some of those corners, people eat unusual animals.

The hemorrhagic Ebola virus that emerged in the 1970s in the Congo has been traced to consumption of bush meat, including chimpanzees and fruit bats. And SARS, which emerged from China in 2002, was also traced back to a virus that existed in bats and spread to humans who ate wild civets infected by the bats.

To be clear, China doesn't have a monopoly on consumption of wildlife. I've been in restaurants in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia where squirrel has been part of the menu.

But health researchers warned after the SARS outbreak that the numerous and unregulated wild animal markets in China were a public health threat, but little apparently has been done.

Cruise companies can only hope that the outbreak isn't long-lived and that their stock prices, which have declined about 10% since it started, will soon be in the recovery ward.

Shanghai's dazzling skyline with its numerous towers built by global architects is one face of China, but the other face has hardly been hidden from view. The business lesson of the coronavirus outbreak is that if you're going to chase one, you have to take the other in the bargain.


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