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Could Covid-19 Change The Game For Animal Rights? 

Written by Mieke Leenders 

One would think that the correlation between public health and the way we treat animals, should have been abundantly clear by now. And while we can certainly speak of some progress, recent events have once again shown, that we still have a long way to go. Covid-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11th 2020, and since then there has been a ton of press around China’s wet markets, revealing the vast scale of their wildlife farming – and trading industry. Factory Farming in generalisunderattactogether with the extent of our meat-consumption, and it forces us to question how we can approach this enemy we had already invited in decades ago.


While we’re still not able to pinpoint the exact originof the coronavirus, the most accepted theory at this time seems to be that pangolins, one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, have passed the Coronavirus from bats to people. But whether it started with the scaly creatures or not, there is clearly a link between our rigorous expansion into previously undisturbed ecosystems, and the rise of zoonoses (infections of animal origin).


But, if mere information had the power to fundamentally change us, it already would have done so. If facts held any true value, people’s exposure to the shocking numbers regarding public health, animal rights and animal agriculture, would have had convinced everyone to change their habits and their diets there and then. But it hasn’t. At least not for most.


Of course, information is not always straightforward and governments excel at muddying the water with misinformation. In China, the unfounded use of pangolins and other wildlife in traditional Chinese medicine combined with the avid silencing of whistle-blowers such as Li Wenliang, has exposed a culture where maintaining social order and a billion dollar industry, is far more valuable than public health and scientific advancement. In fact, even China’s recent Wildlife Trade ban, a possibly more fervent revival of the ban implemented after the SARS Outbreak of 2003, excludes all trades for the sake of medical usefrom the ban. Considering the immensity of the medical trade, it makes you wonder what difference this would really made for the pangolins and even global health.

Wildlife Market.jpg

A Wildlife Wet Market Selling Pangolins.

Pangolin Scales.jpg

A Pangolin’s scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes up nails and hair, and holds no proven medical value.

Most people do possess some understanding of the connection between our meat-consumption and ours, as well the animal’s, health by now. And while veganism along with other environmental battles aredefinitely on the rise, I have often felt incredibly frustrated as to why we aren’t further along at this stage. After all, it has been public knowledge for quite some time now, right? It was in 1971 when Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet revolutionised the idea of eating as a political act. Her work was the first major publication arguing for environmental vegetarianism, selling millions of copies at the time. There have been numerous reports since then, including a 2004 publication by the WHO  released after the 2003 SARS Epidemic, trying to isolate the main risk factors in this age of rising diseases. Under Avian Influenza, an “increased demand for animal protein resulting in expansion and intensification of farming”, was penned down as the leading factor. Expanding on this notion, the United States National Library of Medicine published a 2013 study connecting Zoonosis emergence to agricultural intensification and environmental change, detailing how deforestation and agricultural expansion increases the interaction of humans and livestock with wildlife, exposing them to a new variety of diseases.

Again, all the information was there, but where was the sustainable change?


On April 10th 2020, 32.000 turkeys had been euthanized due to an outbreak of bird flu within a commercial flock in South Carolina, which had already killed over 1000 birds. It is the first severe outbreak since 2017, with many disastrous cases preceding it, not just in South Carolina, but globally. 

But, before we take to signing petitions against the practices of our distant neighbors and subsequently wash our hands on the matter, we could make a much bigger difference by fighting the battle on a grander stage, and also looking closer to home as well as across the borders. The Covid-19 debate has revived other discussions regarding the horrible conditions in which we allow farmed animals to live, and the health risks that have been connected with this rampant abuse for decades. Animal agriculture has often proven to be a highly effective catalyst for pandemic flu outbreaks, particularly in poultry farms. A 2018 Research Paper, made mention of so-called “conversion events”. This conversion refers to a happening when a minor pathogenic avian flu strain, evolves into something far more harmful. The report indicated that most of these conversions, had occurred in the intensive poultry farms, predominantly those in the US, Australia and Europe.


In his 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu, evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace discusses how factory chickens and other poultry, are forced to live almost piled onto each other, leaving little to no room for the animals to move. The birds are typically near-genetic twins due to a selective breeding process that produces the lean meat people have come to love. When a virus gets introduced, it can race right through the densely packed flock of birds, without meeting any genetic resistance, and could then  easily be transmitted to humans.

The United States National Library of Me

Image Credit: The United States National Library of Medicine

The fact is that we too have been guilty of muddying the water. For years, the health of our environment had stimulated debates about green energy and housing, our personal water consumption and solar panels. And while good, animal agriculture has long been back-seated despite the evidence all being there. Here too, multi-billion industries were treated favorably for a long time, and they still are. Thinking back to my cutting meat out of my diet almost 20 years ago, I had to dig pretty deep to find all the information I wanted. In fact, I initially happened upon it rather by accident. But, after learning about its environmental impact, but mainly the way the animals were being treated, every bite felt like being an accessory to a terrible crime. 


However, it has become clear that it’s not always like that, and facts themselves, even when visible, aren’t the greatest motivator for sustainable change. This is something I couldn’t understand until I was already several years into my new diet. Back in 1950, theoretical physicist Max Planck developed his famous theory now known as Planck’s Principle. Planck argues that scientific revolutions are not rational by nature. They don’t get accepted simply due to the merit of facts and truth. Instead, he adds, the population opposing the scientific research will eventually die, while a new generation will grow up with this very research as a norm, developing a crucial familiarity with it.


While Planck was referring specifically to scientists, it applies to us as well. All cultures value animals differently. We still struggle in giving rights to farmed animals, while we shudder at the thought of eating dogs and trading little pangolins for their scales. But, we do have generations out there now that have already gained the valuable familiarity with the science. Animal rights are no longer preached by a quirky, new-age subculture. They have found a global stage. Veganism has hit the commercial market, projected to be worth 24.3 billion by 2026. Deforestation and abuses have moved from being a practice hidden behind closed doors, to a public affair that is met with global outrage.


So, could the debates triggered by Covid-19 change the game for animal rights? At the very least, it could intensify our efforts and keep us building on the next generation’s familiarity and awareness. Because now, surely, we have hit the point where it should no longer be about what we are giving up, but what we will be gaining.

How can you help and learn more?

Consider going meat free! It is easy to do, good for the planet and good for your health! Check out Challenge 22 to find out more. 

The concept of Covid-19 and Wet Markets can be confusing and feel far out of our reach. Watch Earthling Ed's video below to help understand the severity and how we can help stop this from happening again. 

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