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Covid-19 is here because we eat animals

By M. Grieven

The spread of the Covid-19 virus is not a surprise, and the next zoonosis is just around the corner. For our own safety, we should urgently be wanting to change the ways we interact with and rely on animals for consumption, but there is no political desire, voice or vision to change anything.

When news about a new corona virus variant first spread around the world back in late 2019 and early 2020, there was often a strange undercurrent in reporting and commentary that somehow this was a ‘Chinese’ or an ‘Asian’ issue, borne out of ‘wet markets’, where live wild and domestic animals are crammed together in their thousands, awaiting slaughter.

Some politicians as well as journalists across the world, and across the political opinion spectrum, had joined these kind of concerns about ‘wet market’ conditions in some Chinese cities as a breeding ground for zoonotic viruses – SARS-CoV-2 belongs to them. Whether or not the virus will ever be traced to its exact origin, scientists are certain that it emerged in an animal host before zoonotic transfer.1

Most notoriously for trying to shift the view away from the own door step and onto China was the outgoing Trump administration, but anti-Chinese rhetoric was plentiful to be found elsewhere too, including high-profile members of the British Government.2 This kind of rhetoric in reaction to an outbreak of what grew into a pandemic we are still struggling with today was sadly as expected as it is condemnable.

But what is more concerning is the fact that the efforts to shift the collective focus away from failings ‘at home’, and instead create a narrative that exonerates our own government’s lack of strategy and instead instil in peoples’ minds the notion that the fault lies elsewhere, seem to be successful.3 This is problematic for a number of reasons, but foremost because it allows governments to operate with significantly less scrutiny, within a pandemic that requires transparency, expertise and fact-based action, not efforts to shift the blame elsewhere. Regardless under which circumstances, admitting fault or blame is never easy for anyone, and no one wants to hear “you are part of the problem”. We are far happier to accept almost literally any other scenario. However, Covid-19 has cast a new sharp focus on the dangers of virus mutations that can jump from animal to human, and scientists from around the work are working to study the evolution of the virus and how this transmission and the resulting pandemic happened.4 An uncomfortable part of the answer is: because we eat meat.

(These conversations are not new by any means, a number of virologists, veterinarians, or medical professionals have been warning of this kind of scenario for a long time.) But for all the talk since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic about ‘wet markets’ in China, people are often more than happy to forget the abysmally unhygienic and barbarically cruel conditions in which pigs, chickens, or any other livestock are born, raised, kept, and slaughtered in the industrial mass production system for meat products that end up on our tables. Our industrialised factory farming system is very much accepted as a normality we live with and don’t tend to think much about, but it is equally cruel and problematic in terms of health as ‘wet markets’. New potent strains of bird flu for example are appearing with disturbing regularity, but it does not often make the news, and if it does, it is usually a small note somewhere in the margins, because it is just tens of thousands of animals that are being culled, and it’s not humans that are dying – yet. There needs to be mainstream political recognition of the damaging effects and dangers of the meat industry – here and elsewhere in the world alike – and a desire to move away from the status quo.

We have to assume we have been lucky to escape a deadly global zoonotic virus for so long. What are we expecting when we force animals to live in their own faeces until their feet rot away, and the only reason they are still alive when they are transported to slaughter is because they are pumped full of antibiotics (often last-line antibiotics, which is a huge problem for medicine as more and more people develop resistances). Can we really be surprised that this pandemic is sweeping the globe? We should be surprised that we have escaped something like this virus until now. The writing was very much on the wall for anyone who wanted to see it.

It is fatal in more ways than one. It should be the responsibility of politicians and governments to act in the best interest for the health, safety and wellbeing of all their citizens. As a society, as humans in the third decade of the 21st century, we clearly need to rethink our relationship with animals. All animal-human interaction that is, whether it is factory farmed meat for consumption or exotic pets for entertainment. Why is it that even during a raging pandemic that was caused by a zoonotic virus which likely originated in animals that were captured, tortured and slaughtered for consumption, political leaders across the spectrum and across the world remain silent on the fact that the next ecological time bomb for another virus just like this one – or worse – is ticking away just next door from us: in our factory farms. We need a radical change towards a much healthier and safer way of producing food – with or without meat on the menu. This requires political leadership that has the courage to create and communicate a vision for this kind of transition into a world where our food is less likely to come with a side of killer virus. But it also requires for us all to see and admit the connections between our demand for cheap industrial meat, the dangerously unhealthy conditions in our factory farms, and the potential for the next zoonotic virus to develop and spread around the world.

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