“Predictable, inevitable, preventable.” Those are the words of Wendy Orent, an anthropologist specializing in health and pandemics, in describing the novel Coronavirus outbreak. We are now literally in lockdown over a crisis of our own creation that need never exist, if it were not for our exploitation of animals and their habitats. And the fact that we have had other viral outbreaks that preceded the current one (SARS, MERS, avian flus, swine flu, Ebola, and HIV) means we’ve willfully chosen to ignore the important lessons from our recent past.
Since all of our energy and resources are now dedicated to averting the crisis, the message of prevention may not resonate until the crisis is better under control and our minds are freer to reflect on how this happened. Nevertheless, the revelation that this crisis is largely of our own choosing is disturbing on many levels. It means those who shape global food and health policy are knowingly ignoring animal agriculture, the very industry that most undermines the goals of protecting public health and the environment, improving food security, alleviating poverty, and mitigating climate change and ecological collapse.
In her new TED Talk, global health expert Alanna Shaikh clearly explains how viruses like Coronavirus pass to humans. “Coronaviruses are zoonotic which means they transmit from animals to people.” “Human choices are driving us into a position where we’re going to see more outbreaks.” “It’s… about the way we are pushing into the last wild spaces on our planet. When we burn and plow into the Amazon rainforest so that we can have cheap land for ranching, when the last of the African bush gets converted to farms, when wild animals in China are hunted to extinction, human beings come into contact with wildlife populations that they have never come into contact with before…” “So as long as we keep making our remote places less remote, the outbreaks are going to keep coming.”
Even as meat consumption appears to be declining amid the COVID-19 pandemic, animals are paying a heavy toll for the pandemics we create. A video of a failing Indian chicken farmer who reportedly buried alive 6,000 chickens in a ditch went viral on social media. Here in the U.S. and elsewhere, farmers exterminate millions of birds due to avian flu outbreaks that scientists believe spread from wild birds to farmed birds. As reported in the Miami Herald, “During the past 19 months, the world’s largest pork market [China] lost almost half of its pigs to an illness that went unreported and unchecked, and is now crossing borders threatening livestock elsewhere in Asia and the world.” But the media rarely reports on these mass exterminations.
While health officials work in crisis mode, we must seize this as an opportunity to plan and organize campaigns to expose the dangers posed by the wildlife trade and animal agriculture and call for an end to both. Logic and morality are on our side. In extreme times like this, society is willing to accept more “extreme” measures that would be rejected in more normal times. We don’t need to exploit animals in this day and age. Without animal agriculture and the wildlife trade, we could minimize viral outbreaks and improve public health outcomes as well as drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and so many other environmental impacts.