Covid-19 is the Inevitable Outcome of Our Treatment of Animals
“As we besiege them, as we corner them, as we exterminate them and eat them, we’re getting their diseases.”
― David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, 2012
The sunset was so glorious this evening that I opened my window to get a better look at it. I savoured the fresh air as I took in the mix of colours; fluffy lilac clouds set against a sky bathed in pastel shades of blue and pink and lurid yellow. In the distance, I could hear kids playing in a nearby park, and for a moment it felt like a normal day in March, bright and crisp and charged with the promise of spring.
Then I remembered that it wasn’t a normal day, not quite, because we are in the grips of a global pandemic that is killing elderly and immunocompromised people, and my pleasant thoughts were replaced with one that emerged, uninvited, like an iceberg breaking through the waves.
In two weeks' time, if I were to open this same window, would I still hear the sounds of kids playing in the park, the whoosh of passing cars? Or would I hear nothing but birdsong, stark against the silence — the sounds of a city on lockdown?
I have never been one for hyperbole when it comes to health, but in the past few days, these thoughts have come to lurk at the periphery of what I like to think is my calm and rational mind. Increasingly, they are difficult to write-off as merely a product of the current news-media climate, which has long since profited from the manufacturing of hysteria.
Covid-19 has already begun to shape how we work, how we travel, how we interact with one another, even how we shop for groceries. Around the world, it has brought whole sections of society to a standstill. Or at least, it has brought public spaces at large to a standstill, whilst hospitals in the worst-affected places are beset with chaos.
Although the young and healthy might have little to fear from the virus itself, the costs to personal freedom will be universal. As will be the costs to families with elderly loved ones, to the economy, to businesses, and in the UK, to the NHS, already on its knees after a decade of cuts.
In the midst of all this calamity, there is a rising tide of both frustration and vindication within the animal rights community. This is a crisis in which our relationship with animals is extremely relevant, and one that in some sense, has been prophesied for decades.
For had we possessed more respect for their ecosystems, for the rights of animals and their humane treatment, then the virus may not have jumped the species gap and taken hold at all. Over 6000 of society’s most vulnerable people might still be alive.
We know that the first outbreak of Covid-19 struck at a market in Wuhan, China, the likes of which have become central to the country’s trade of exotic and wild animals, including endangered species like the pangolin. We know that the conditions in which animals are kept at these markets are often deplorable, with little heed paid to either their immense stress and suffering nor proper sanitation. They are captured from the wild, kept in cramped, overcrowded cages, and killed openly, exposing the public to pathogens in their spilled blood and excrement.
We know these things; and we also know that when combined, they are a recipe for disaster, for a potential viral outbreak, because they have been the ingredients of almost every major viral outbreak in modern history.
In 2017, Severe Accurate Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus strain that killed over 700 people in 2003, was traced to palm civets sold in China’s animal markets, which had caught the virus from cave-dwelling bats in the Yunnan-province, and acted as a natural reservoir for the disease.
Ebola, which, during its 2014 outbreak, seemed on the precipice of the kind of world domination that Covid-19 has since achieved, has also been linked to bats, and their direct consumption at bushmeat markets by communities in the Congo and Gabon.
Then there’s HIV, which infects approximately 37.9 million people globally; its emergence has been attributed to the eating of non-human primates in West Central Africa as early as the 1920s.
These are just a few examples among many, but the pattern is clear; in raiding once remote ecosystems to satisfy our appetite for meat, traditional medicine, and the exotic pet trade, we humans often disrupt the relationship between viruses and their vector, reservoir and target species. We put ourselves in the picture, offering the human race up as a viable alternative host, one with far superior capabilities for spreading infection, thanks to international travel and systems of commerce. Our exploitation of the natural world transforms niche viruses, once confined to obscure species in forests and caves, into mainstream viruses.
In his 2012 book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, American science writer David Quammen predicted that the next global pandemic would have animal origins, and stressed that striving for ecological harmony between human and animal life was a means of preventing it. He wrote:
“Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing. They reflect the convergence of two forms of crisis on our planet. The first crisis is ecological, the second is medical.”
Quammen made this warning eight years ago, before the 2014 Ebola Virus outbreak in West Africa that spread across the globe and killed over 10,000 people. And yet here we are.
Then there are the zoonotic outbreaks that flourish within intensive farming practices, including in the western world; Swine Flu, Avian Flu, Foot and Mouth Disease, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or ‘Mad Cow’s Disease’. Added to this is the increasing fear that the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture — used to reduce infections among animals housed in conditions where they are rife — is contributing to the creation of an antibiotic-resistant
When I mentioned that there is a sense of vindication in the animal rights community in response to current events, I don’t mean that we are reveling in it; afterall, our beliefs won’t shield us from its impact. But it does confirm something that we have argued for years; that the conditions under which we continue to eat animals are damaging and dangerous, and those dangers are not justified when eating meat is neither humane, nor necessary.
This bigger picture, however — that viral pandemics are not limited to foreign wildlife markets, but also extend to the meat produce sections of supermarkets in the west — seems to have been somewhat lost outside of the animal rights movement.
When reports of Covid-19’s spread began to leak out of China, social media became awash with armchair commentators who suggested that the virus was a kind of karma for the Chinese people, a ‘punishment’ for their attitude to animals. The problem is not us, they implied, it's them.
There is no denying that China has among the worst track records for animal rights in the world, that cultural attitudes to animals across South East Asia are often deficient in even the most basic principles of humane treatment. The demand for animal ingredients in traditional Asian medicine also continues to be absolutely catastrophic for conservation; the toll it is taking on some animal populations cannot be overstated.
Perhaps the most infamous picture that comes to mind when thinking of Chinese animal markets, however, is that of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival; of fully conscious dogs being skinned, boiled or burned alive with blowtorches, since adrenaline is believed to improve the medicinal properties of their meat.
But just because the conditions under which we in the west use animals are better, doesn’t mean that they are acceptable, humane or justified; boiling dogs alive is a very low bar. It’s true, we don’t do this to dogs, but we do sometimes accidentally boil pigs alive, through improper stunning on a production line more concerned with speed than with suffering. We do cull up to seven million male chicks per year by, among other methods, feeding them into giant shredding machines whilst fully conscious. We do produce dairy products by repeatedly impregnating cows and then removing, and often killing, their newborn calves. If we did these things in public markets rather than behind the doors of factory farms, perhaps our moral high ground would be more obviously unstable.
Crucially, there is one other thing we do in the west, and that’s house animals in cramped, stressful, inadequately ventilated and filthy conditions. Our factory farms are the perfect environment for the next global pandemic to thrive, just as Swine Flu did in 2009, when it killed up to 575,000 people.
And we continue with these practices, even when arguably we no longer need to. In the case of some remote West African communities where Ebola has run amok, bushmeat is one of few food sources available. In the west, we have entire supermarkets of alternatives at our disposal, and yet still we lay the groundwork for zoonotic viruses in service of our taste buds.
Now, more than ever before, being lectured about how dangerous the vegan diet is for human health wears thin.
Avian Flu, Swine Flu, MERS, Ebola, HIV, SARS, Salmonella, BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease, Covid-19. Add to this list the rising crisis of antibiotic resistance, and the
that animal agriculture is making to climate change, arguably even a bigger threat to our future than this virus, and accusations that veganism might cause a vitamin deficiency become a little lame by comparison.
At least if I get a vitamin deficiency — and it’s been over ten years, with none in sight — it will only harm me personally, not the planet and its most vulnerable occupants; both human and animal.
“People and gorillas, horses and duikers and pigs, monkeys and chimps and bats and viruses: We’re all in this together.”
― David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, 2012
"Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless."
- Ecclesiastes 3:19