Margaret Cook in The New Statesman:
Much is made in the west of China’s booming economy. But there are inevitable downsides to what has been described as the “greatest mass urbanisation in the history of the world”. In China Syndrome, Karl Taro Greenfeld probes one of them: the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2003, in which an estimated 884 people died, and which only narrowly escaped becoming a devastating pandemic of 15-20 per cent mortality.
It is thought that Sars originated in the city of Shenzen, in southern China’s Guangdong province. Early on, Greenfeld swoops in on the aptly named Fang Lin, an illegal immigrant to the city from the countryside, who finds a job handling and slaughtering exotic wild animals for restaurants. “Wild flavour”, as it is known, is an important ingredient in China’s new culture of conspicuous consumption. Thanks to lax regulation, the trade in snakes, camels, otters, monkeys, badgers, bats, pangolins, geese, civets, wild boars – anything that can be trapped or hunted – has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Animals are kept in filthy conditions in the backs of restaurant kitchens, where they are butchered only after diners have made their choice. Fang Lin would emerge after a night’s work covered in the blood and excreta of panicked animals, and would chain-smoke to kill the stench.
It is in this overcrowded, pollution-ridden environment that a virus hops over the species barrier, from civet cats to humans.