Amid COVID-19, An Invasive Species Reaches America’s Shores

If the pandemic was not enough, the so-called “Murder Hornet” is now in our midst.

Just when you thought it was safe to go outdoors again—with face coverings, of course—news of a lethal, stinging insect could scare people back inside. The Asian giant hornet has just shown up in our beehives and on our doorsteps.

Airlines are going bust, vacations getting canceled, and study-abroad programs marooning college kids in other countries, but that doesn’t mean all overseas travel has stopped. Microscopic viruses and big, bad invasive species are still roaming the world, finding new homes on distant shores.

When it comes to nature, there is no justice, only reckoning.

Today’s novel coronavirus arrived at the end of 2019, an unwelcome guest that snuck in—undetected—from China with infected transcontinental travelers. Now, as we hunker down to stave off COVID-19, the so-called “Murder Hornet” is the latest invasive species to make it to America, delivering psychic shock waves and deadly stings. Big, visible foreign invaders like the hornet are easier to detect and a lot less worrisome than the invisible coronavirus microbes rapidly jumping from person-to-person.

The story of the traveling deadly virus is not a new one. Any modern history of the Americas recognizes the devastation brought from Europe to the New World. Attacks did not arrive only in the form of weapons or troops, but were conducted primarily by new diseases; especially smallpox, a hidden virus with a 12-day incubation period. Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, points out that Europeans introduced the new diseases of smallpox, measles, and flu that killed an estimated 90 percent of Native Americans—around 20 million people.

Darwinism kicked in, allowing the strongest to survive and for immunity to set in. Antibodies developed, generations evolved, and we—the successors of those survivors—still stand. Globalization has exposed more people to the varied diseases and pestilence that exist around the world and, in the process, helped strengthen our systems and fostered our own survival.

Microbes may make it through our Customs and immigration walls, but there are other critters and cuttings that sneak in to sully our native ecological balance. In Florida alone, imported invasive creatures include feral hogs, Burmese pythons, lionfish, and fire ants while habitat is overtaken by aquatic hydrilla weeds and climbing lygodium ferns.

Globalization and urbanization may have accelerated the reach and velocity of both viral infection and the spread of invasive species, but, again, this is not a new story.

Anyone familiar with Western movies has seen shootout scenes in dusty town squares marked by the sound of desolate winds blowing iconic tumbleweed through the streets. What can be more Western than tumbleweed? Russia and China gifted the first invasive species of tumbleweed to the Americas around 1877, only to be crowded out by a new tumbleweed coming from Australia and South Africa that has since hybridized. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been fighting a losing war against this invader for over a century.

In some parts of the world, native species of flora and fauna face extinction because of hunting or environmental degradation. Wild tigers, for instance, are sought for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities and resplendent hides. Enter, ironically, Joe Exotic and his nemesis, Carole Baskin. Together they and their ilk have more tigers alive in captivity than exist in the wild.

While we are now freaking out about the latest Asian import, the Murder Hornet, we can at least spend a few lockdown hours on Netflix watching “Tiger King,” that uniquely American story of hubris and hucksterism. The show is now a major globalized export and a leading example of how viral American entertainment can infect the minds of the world.

Well before the Tiger King, 15th century globalization gave the Americas an opportunity to spread native joys and stimulants to the Old World. Explorers brought back to Europe the most remarkable of agricultural products: tobacco and chocolate.

Smoking kills, of course. Tobacco became an export that has since taken many lives and, despite its addictive qualities, was easier to avoid than the killer smallpox brought to America.

While new smokers and vapers are cropping up globally, smallpox no longer exists thanks to a worldwide vaccination program. Smallpox, in fact, was the world’s first eradicated disease. Let’s hope the imported COVID-19 virus is soon No. 2 on that short list so we can all get outside—where the Murder Hornets thrive.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.