Can Ethical Treatment of Animals Prevent Future Pandemics?
Anthropologists have traced the emergence of human disease to about 10,000 years ago- roughly when animal domestication began. It is now known that we are living in what they call “the Age of Emerging Plagues”, most of which formed among animals and jumped the species barrier to humans. The issue of animal-to-human transmission of disease (zoonosis) is a common phenomenon- most if not all infectious diseases are of this type. The past has been devastated by the effects of zoonotic diseases such as Swine flu, Avian flu, HIV, MERS, and SARS to name a few. Today, we are living through the effects of Covid-19. So what has changed in the past 10,000 years to bring us to “the Age of Emerging Plagues”?
I believe the answer lies in the way in which we treat animals. The “wet” markets of China provide a prime example. The conditions in these markets are impeccable breeding grounds for new infectious diseases. Animals of various species are caged and crammed into tight spaces until they are butchered on-site upon request of a customer. The cage floors of blood, excrement and other bodily fluids combined with the proximity to humans facilitate the transmission of infection between animals, and eventually to humans. Globalization can ensure that a single infected person can cause a pandemic in the short span of a few weeks- as seen with the current coronavirus. In my opinion, Covid-19 is a direct result of the extremely cruel treatment of animals.
However, these devastating infectious diseases do not only come from “wet” markets housing exotic animals, or the consumption of wildlife. The conditions in industrial farming systems across the globe have wreaked havoc on human health. Perhaps it is shocking to you to think of eating wildlife such as bats or to imagine the cruelty that goes on in wet markets. Our culture; however, has been desensitized to the devastating slaughterhouse cruelty that goes on in the factory farming system. Do we consider it “normal” to hide the suffering of pigs and hens in the animal farming systems just because their meat has for so long been a part of our diet?
Apart from aspects of culture, factory farms, and “wet” markets are no different. Closed, confined spaces; a large number of animals; great amounts of fecal dust and pollutants, and close contact with other sick or dying animals enables the evolution of disease on these factory farms. Furthermore, the use and abuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria or superbugs. These superbugs foreshadow a possible future in which humans return to the pre-antibiotic era. Factory farms have bred influenza viruses such as Avian flu and Swine flu. Had Avian flu reached the state of the current pandemic, death rates would be up to roughly 60% as opposed to the Covid-19 death rate of 1-2%. Imagine over half the Covid-19 infected population was dying. Can you even imagine such a thing? Something has to change.
I want a future in which we can prevent pandemics rather than just respond to them. While there is no simple answer, together we can advocate for a global shift towards safer and more compassionate food systems. Choosing plant-based foods and cutting back on meat when possible is a major contribution to the future of the globe. We must talk about the ethical treatment of animals, call on our leaders, and support advocacy organizations fighting for change. Factory farms and wildlife markets are ticking time bombs for pandemics of the future and we must abandon them. Millions of lives are at stake.