Animal rights and COVID-19.

Throughout the recent global pandemic, we talk about human suffering constantly. About how we have to stay in our homes, deprived of physical contact with much of the outside world, and unable to dine in restaurants or get regrettable haircuts. What is forgotten, however, is the billions of animals around the world being raised for human consumption who live unimaginably tragic lives at the hands of their captors. In fact, our disregard for other species is a part of what got us into this mess with COVID-19 in the first place, and is what will lead us to face more and more pandemics if we don’t learn to respect our fellow earthlings and their right to live.

A wet market in China. Most of the earliest COVID-19 cases originated in one of these sites.

Wet markets are open air markets where people set up booths and sell fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood. They are akin to farmer’s markets, save for one important detail: some of them sell and slaughter live animals. The reason for the term “wet market” is because the areas where animals are slaughtered are soaked with blood and other fluids that get splashed around. These markets may seem unrecognizable to us in the global West, but such markets also exist in cities such as New York, where there are 80 live-animal markets and slaughterhouses in existence.

Although not very common, these markets sometimes have areas that peddle wildlife. The Huanan market in Wuhan had such a market, where live wildlife were sold and slaughtered. On January 26th, China banned selling and consuming wildlife for subsistence, a move that came after the virus had already been spreading throughout China and the globe; although wet markets remain open.

“It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that” Dr. Fauci said.

A turtle’s shell being cut open while it is still alive.

It really comes with no surprise that markets that slaughter live animals would be a hub for diseases. Many world leaders and organizations; such as the UN, Lindsay Graham, and Dr. Fauci, just to name a few, have called for their immediate closure. What is somehow forgotten, though, is that many viral diseases that infect humans originate in pigs and chickens. Here in the United States, we have cramped warehouses stuffed to the brim with animals ready for the slaughter. More than 9 billion chickens and turkeys are forced into small cages on farms each year, and pigs are slaughtered on floors soaked with blood, feces, and urine. To truly stamp out these viral diseases that keep popping up and shuttering human society, we need to put and end to our insatiable appetite for animal flesh. The suffering that these beings endure obviously isn’t enough to end the demand, but perhaps the prospect of future pandemics will.

Another piece to the story of why we must end the practice of consuming animals is that deforestation displaces wildlife that humans aren’t used to coming into contact with, which introduces us to new diseases. Zoonotic diseases have found humans as hosts for years. Coronaviruses, rabies, Lyme disease, dengue, malaria, salmonella, E. coli infections, HIV, avian flu, West Nile virus, zika, and swine flu are all examples of such diseases. Often it is farmers and laborers tasked with cutting down these forests, as well as those who live in poverty, who are most exposed to these viruses. Similarly, it is often immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, and people living in poverty who work in slaughterhouses and on farms in the United States.

“Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic. Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves”, the UN environmental chief, Inger Anderson, said in regards to COVID-19.

The good news is that future zoonotic diseases are preventable, although that would take world leaders stepping up and putting an end to animal consumption and deforestation. Scientists are already warning that the next pandemic could originate from Brazilian rainforests that are rapidly being torn down and destroyed in the name of profit. Unless we want to live in a world where we have to hide out in our homes and wear face masks to the grocery store, we are going to have to seriously redesign how we interact with the natural world. Nature will fight back if we don’t, and we are vulnerable.

Writer. BA in anthropology. Psychology grad student.