As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread and have unprecedented impacts on every level of society around the world, we are faced with the harsh reality that the system of globalization we have created can help spread illness as fast as popular culture and cheap goods.
Today, COVID-19 is potentially being linked to wild animal markets in China and the consumption of bats or pangolins, among numerous other wild caught animals. Not only is the consumption of wild animals in unsanitary market conditions a problem for disease transmission, but also the illegal trade of wildlife for profit, now worth tens of billions of dollars annually. In response, it has been widely reported that China has shut down their wild animal markets to try and stop the source of this disease transmission, but clearly the damage is already done.
There is a failed lesson and a denial of memory in what the world is currently experiencing. Even the Canadian governments own analysis of “commodity specific diseases,” where animals are the “commodity,” are focused on the economic impact. When the previous avian flu and the H1N1 outbreaks occurred, millions of animals in intensive agriculture settings were killed to stop the spread. In 2004, B.C. killed nearly 20 million chickens and other birds in response to two workers falling ill with a strain of the avian flu and the virus spreading between flocks. Yet, the post-mortem response was not to stop intensive animal agriculture, instead It was simply to get back to productivity killing tens of millions of chickens.
What the current pandemic shows is that we have not learned from our past mistakes. There have been warnings for years that we need to address the potential of zoonotic diseases in intensive animal agriculture settings. In, 2013, the UN published a report called World Livestock 2013: Changing Disease Landscapes, that addressed their growing concern with animal agriculture and human encroachment on wildlife habitat as a breeding ground for disease transmission. According to the report, of the diseases that emerged in humans over the last half-century, the majority are linked to wildlife. As large agricultural centres tend to be closer to wildlife habitat, in addition to providing unsanitary and close confinement, intensive animal agriculture creates an ideal breeding ground and transmission opportunity between wildlife and domesticated animals who also have contact with humans.
Canadian and world governments have failed to take seriously the inherent risks in intensive animal agriculture that create an ideal environment for disease transmission between animals and humans. That is because they still only respond to these health emergencies in a reactive, anthropocentric way. Once the dust has cleared on the human health impact and the economic cost, the animals involved remain the commodity that was defective, nothing more.
When a product is defective and can injure the public, usually there is a recall. The product is then destroyed, repaired, or replaced. Animals are not commodities that can be killed en masse and then replaced with new animals to mitigate the problem. The foundational problem of intensive animal agriculture and transmission of zoonotic diseases persists regardless of any attempt to kill or replace the transmitting animals.
It is clear that the basic failure of governments to address the root of the problem goes beyond disease transmission though. Although seemingly forgotten in the current moment, we have been and are still facing climate breakdown in large part due to the global marketplace and the destruction of nature, including the exploitation of animals. While the human disease pandemic has ushered in a global response, the loss of millions of species and environmental collapse has garnered merely a collective shrug from world leaders. Even amidst the pandemic, the Canadian government is considering bailing out the fossil fuel industry, showing its commitment to industry over the environment.
What we need our governments to do is recognize the imperative global health consequences of treating animals as commodities and not individuals. Without wildlife the ecological systems that we depend on will fail. Domesticated animals amplify our own environmental footprint while suffering the indignity and cruelty of being at our often-withheld mercy. Once the pandemic passes, we need to immediately begin transitioning away from animal agriculture as an urgent response to the health risks it poses, for the cruelty inherent in it, and the environmental crisis it contributes to.
If we do not care about animals and their habitat until the consequences of their exploitation and demise affect us, humanity will find itself in a forced social isolation from nature far worse than anything we can voluntarily impose.
Deputy Leader, Animal Protection Party of Canada