Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: COVID-19

Coronavirus and crime: Good for wildlife, bad for fishing communities

archive Photo: (Photo: Yunus Mohamed / Gallo)

There will be a Covid-19-related socioeconomic and resultant crime problem that emerges before the virus hits South Africa’s shores in numbers. Communities will lose their entire income with immediate effect. This requires planning and almost immediate government support to thousands of destitute people — the fishing community of the Western Cape being an example.

The global focus of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has correctly been on preventing further human-to-human spread, treating those who are infected and finding the animal source from which the virus “jumped” into humans.

Current evidence strongly suggests that the “species jump” occurred in Wuhan within a Chinese “wet market.” Initial reports suggested that Covid-19 was directly linked to pangolins, as there appeared to be a close coronavirus “cousin” that was matched fairly well in pangolins with what has been isolated from infected humans. However, it may be even more complex than that, as further data suggests that the Covid-19 virus may actually have come from bats initially and that pangolins were either mere intermediaries of the virus before infecting humans – or there was a genetic mixing of both these bat/pangolin viruses into one that crossed over into humans.

Whatever the source, Asian authorities are spooked by the mass importation of foreign wild animals. 

China announced on Monday an “immediate and comprehensive ban” on the trade and consumption of wild animals, with specific mention of animals sourced illegally. That ban will include South African animals that are traded legally, such as West Coast Lobster, as well as the myriad exotic, illegally plundered foods, such as perlemoen (abalone), pangolins, rats, civets, peacocks, wolf pups, snakes, salamanders and so on.

The Wuhan wet market price list for more than 100 such “edible” species from around the world has been circulating on the internet. So-called “wet markets” are notorious for having thousands of live, wild animals from across the globe crammed in cages in very close proximity to the market sellers and customers, thereby increasing the chances of a leap between species.

Where does that link to a possible increase in crime? Isn’t that a leap too far? There are at least two levels where this is possible.

First, there are the legal traders of certain foods to China. More than 90% of legally caught SA crayfish are exported live to China. That market has stopped with immediate effect. Gone! There is zero market for SA crayfish in China for the foreseeable future. While the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has moved this week to ameliorate the challenge by extending the crayfish catching season, this is likely to have very little effect on the crayfishing communities as 90% of the market has dried up.

Domestic prices of crayfish are also likely to be slashed as the supply/demand pressures change. It is inevitable that these fishing companies will retrench thousands of workers, who will have very poor prospects of financial survival, given the challenging economies already within those communities as well as the broader economic environment. Most will become unemployed as ships remain in the docks, their children will become hungry, they will not be able to afford school costs, transportation, books and general support for their families. Families will be financially devastated. It is entirely possible that a segment of that retrenched community will resort to crime as a way to survive if other support is not available.

Second, the links between the illegal poaching communities and crime syndicates have been well documented. Perlemoen poaching is no different. The poachers are a combination of local, impoverished communities and well-organised gangs which raid the shores of perlemoen and crayfish to near extinction while selling their catches to upstream middle-merchants who facilitate the storage and illicit sale offshore. The link between poaching and drug abuse, petty and serious crime is often ignored. The vast majority of the illicit perlemoen trade has ground to a halt, and those across the entire value-chain are now unable to trade. Financial hardship is imminent, with no time to change to something else.

But the poaching community is different to the legal traders – poachers are hardened by years of close association with crime, and they will inevitably turn to something else to survive. Those at the top of the “food chain” may turn to the import/export of drugs or sex slavery and so on while those at the bottom are likely to turn to more localised forms of crime, such as housebreaking and theft of cars in order to earn money. 

Being a pangolin or a perlemoen has just got a whole lot better. The upside of this epidemic awareness is that endangered animals that are traded legally and/or illegally across the globe will be given a (temporary) reprieve and regain some lost ground with regard to population sizes. There is now very limited financial incentive to poach when the market stops demanding your products. 

However, whole communities who sell live animals to China and elsewhere will be economically devastated with immediate effect. The West Coast and southern Cape fishing communities of Hawston, Arniston, Saldanha, Hermanus, Paternoster, Langebaan, Kleinmond and so on are already extremely stressed financially, even with the existing trade. It is also likely that this toxic mix of economic hardship and crime will be felt most among the women and children of the fishing communities.

As a result, there needs to be a major interdepartmental approach to the myriad social, economic and crime challenges ahead, of which the fishing industry is but one. Departments of Education need to increase their assessments of families and learners under stress, and ensure that the school inspections look more closely for malnutrition and other signs of distress. Social workers need to be deployed to these communities to assist. Easy access to Sassa grants needs to be facilitated for those who become unemployed.

A wide range of crime categories is likely to increase, as some of those who previously fished for these species pivot to survival mode and more enter the spiral of poverty and crime. The intelligence services need to assess the risk of these communities pivoting to drugs, sex trafficking, smuggling and other illicit trading. The police in the coastal towns need to increase their patrols to prevent crime, and to ensure that those who now start to steal cars and break into houses are apprehended.

Whole communities will be in need of further social support. This requires a deep systemic government response. MC/DM

Tim Tucker is a clinical virologist and CEO of SEAD Consulting, a public health management consultancy. He is also an adjunct associate professor in the UCT School of Public Health and Family Medicine.

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