Our civilization is on a precipice and we have only ourselves to blame. As the coronavirus sweeps the globe, closes our borders, destroys our economies and livelihoods, and kills our most vulnerable, we need to come to terms with our reality: zoonotic diseases are borne of and exacerbated by the consequences of our dominant attitudes and interactions with animals. We’ve experienced this before with SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and on, but our present-day global death knell of COVID-19 is the wake-up call for a civilization that has gone completely astray.
From Hubei’s wet markets to America’s factory farms, the global nightmare of animal agriculture is destroying our planet, threatening our own health, and causing untold suffering to billions of animals living in extreme confinement in disease-ridden conditions. From the feces-covered processing lines of slaughterhouses, the suffocating chambers of ammonia-ridden farms, to the parasitic cesspools of fish cages – the entire animal agriculture system is one of the greatest existential threats to our own species’ survival. Today it’s Wuhan, tomorrow’s patient zero will be anywhere.
The exploitation of animals has brought us to our present-day pandemic, while the global blight of industrial animal agriculture has hastened the effects of climate change and is pushing our planet to the brink of environmental collapse. We have not heeded the repetitive warnings of experts and ethicists who advise us that what we are doing is dangerous, that what we are doing is wrong. The coronavirus is our final warning. We must act decisively to change how we view and treat animals, or we face our own peril.
From the Eastern precept of Ahimsa to Bentham’s questioning of reason as grounds for moral consideration, the great progress in ethical thought regarding the treatment of animals has been entirely eviscerated by the systematic exploitation of sentient beings in our agricultural system. We have created horrific dystopian institutions, the terrors of which only the most unfortunate of humans can relate – those who have experienced torture, neglect, and enslavement at the hands of a callous oppressor. Animals live their entire lives in pain and fear – from their ill-fated births into factory farms, to their final moments of violence in slaughterhouses: suffocating in gas chambers, burning to death in scalding pools, and bleeding out while still conscious. The outbreak of African Swine Fever in 2019 has resulted in the cull of a quarter of the world’s population of pigs, where rivers of blood and mass graves for animals buried alive by the thousands are chilling examples that show how far we have strayed from our core humanity. This highly contagious disease will inevitably spread across the world and result in the horrific culling of innumerable more diseased animals. And all for what? Taste? Pleasure?
We are at a point in our history where eating meat and animal-derived products is not necessary for the health of individuals, in fact it is the opposite. Continuing on the path we are on will bring us ruin. The most effective action we can take as individuals, as communities and nations, and as a species is to reject this mode of agricultural production in its entirety. Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest threats to global human health – this is being accelerated due to the extraordinary volume of antibiotics that are given to animals in the food system and ultimately make their way into our own bodies. We know that consumption of animal products leads to numerous preventable human diseases and cancers, yet we continue to harm ourselves every time we sit down to eat. Our food agencies regularly warn of foodborne outbreaks stemming from animals that were raised, slaughtered, and processed in unsanitary conditions – where diseased and feces-contaminated carcasses wind up on grocery store shelves. We have an overwhelming body of evidence that urges us to abandon this food system for the sake of our health, the health of our global community, and for the survival of our own species on this fragile planet. Yet all anthropocentric concerns aside, morality and justice demand an end to this cruel agricultural system that animals are forced into.
We are a species at risk. COVID-19 is a terrifying reminder of how humanity has failed animals and the consequences that that has for our own species. Zoonotic diseases are preventable – at their core is the attitudes that humans have towards animals and how we feel entitled to use them as means to our own ends. We need to treat animals with dignity – for their sake, and for our own. This begins with not eating them, and ends with the abolition of animal agriculture.