by Becci Pigeon
Everybody knows by now what caused the COVID-19 pandemic: wet markets in China, and a virus which likely passed from bats to pangolins…to us. This, unfortunately, like far too many things, has led to myopic (and often downright racist and xenophobic) accusations against Chinese people. They eat wild animals, animals who aren’t meant to be eaten. It’s barbaric. Surely they are at fault for all of this madness. Sentiments like serve two purposes: first, they fuel dangerously racist beliefs; secondly, they shield us from examining our own similarly abhorrent treatment of the non-human animals who share our world. COVID-19 simply would not have happened if we didn’t eat animals.
It’s true, of course, that wet markets, which contain many dozens of different wild animal species in unsanitary conditions, are ideal circumstances for cross-species infection. But many of the deadliest zoonotic diseases we encounter come from domestic animals, not wild ones. This means that every country and every culture is culpable. Any place in which humans interact with animals, especially with many thousands of often unhealthy animals in crowded, filthy conditions, is the perfect environment for viruses to mutate and spread—and they do. (In fact, an estimated 90% of farmed animals worldwide are raised in factory farms.) Scientists and public health experts around the world have been warning us of this for a long time, but animal agriculture is big money, and so vested interests and lack of public knowledge have kept it churning along—not just at a steady pace, but a rising one. In the 1950s, there were 30 new infectious diseases; by the 1980s, that number had more than tripled. Even now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are battling yet another form of avian flu.
In fact, three-quarters of infectious disease originate in animal use.
- The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest of all time, killing 50-100 million humans worldwide. It originated on poultry farms in North America (possibly Kansas or New York) and was a strain of what we know now as avian flu.
- Swine flu has killed 151,700 to 575,400 humans and came from pig farms in the U.S. and Mexico. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital virologist Richard Webby has described the massive U.S. pig population as “an increasingly important reservoir of viruses with human pandemic potential.” What is perhaps even more alarming is that while the World Organisation for Animal Health requires farms to report any incidence of avian flu, there exists no similar requirement for pig farms.
- SARS, which is suspected to have come from the consumption of civet cats, infected 8,000 humans and resulted in 774 deaths.
- Even measles, which killed or disabled millions every year before the introduction of a vaccine, is thought to have come from domestic cattle, and researchers predict that another cow-derived infectious illness is on the horizon.
- Ebola has killed over 13,000 since 2014; it is believed to have its origins in fruit bats and primates butchered and eaten by humans.
- HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has similar origins, and has resulted in the deaths of over 32 million.
- MERS, otherwise known as ‘camel flu’, kills a full third of those it infects.
- Nipah virus, which kills half of those infected, came to us via intensively farmed pigs, who caught it from bats.
Experts believe that as we continue our encroachment on the natural world, things will get worse. So let us take this pandemic as a lesson, and emerge from it a wiser, more compassionate species. There’s only one way to significantly reduce the likelihood of another pandemic, and that’s to stop exploiting animals. And there’s only one way to stop exploiting animals: going vegan!
- Willyard, Cassandra, Nature, Flu on the Farm 18 Sept. 2019
- Specht, Liz, Wired, Modernising Meat Production Will Help Us Avoid Pandemics, 13 Mar 2020
- Sentience Media, A Palate for Pestilence: Ominous Links Between COVID-19 and Industrial Animal Farming, 19 Mar. 2020
- Spinney, Laura, The Guardian, Is factory farming to blame for the coronavirus? 28 Mar. 2020
- The Independent, ‘We should start thinking of the next one’: Coronavirus is just the first of many pandemics to come, environmentalists warn, 21 Mar. 2020
- Sentience Media, Coronavirus Should Make You Reconsider Eating Meat, 18 Mar. 2020
- Safina, Carl, Medium, How Wildlife Markets and Factory Farms Guarantee Frequent New Deadly Diseases, 15 Mar. 2020