It’s easy to blame it all on Chinese wet markets.
It’s easy to call it “the rich man’s disease”, and blame it on foreign travel – not accounting for the fact, of course, that some of the most impoverished workers toiling away in the worst conditions are migrants in the Gulf, South East Asian, and European countries.
But the coronavirus – and specifically COVID-19 – is only a preview of what is to come our way.
With our unnatural animal husbandry techniques and the conversion from hunting and gathering to butchery, we have distorted not only the life cycles and reproductive cycles of animals, but also created ideal conditions for the breeding of new strains of microorganisms that can easily travel from humans to animals.
It’s not simply about eating pangolins or bats – or dogs or cats.
The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website says, “deadly outbreaks of mad cow disease, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, HIV, hoof-and-mouth disease, and other zoonotic diseases have stemmed from capturing or farming animals for food. The novel coronavirus originated in a Chinese wet market, where live and dead animals were sold for human consumption.”
Living organisms are essentially petri dishes, growing viruses and bacteria in various parts of their bodies without essentially being affected by them. And just as the host develops an arsenal to fight the invader as the former evolves, the latter also mutates to stay alive and hopefully find a new host, one without the arsenal to fight the invasion.
Add to this the farming habit of injecting antibiotics and antiviral drugs into animals with the notion of preventing disease, and we are training pathogens to mutate into new drug-resistant strains. A case in point is the use of amantadine to control avian flu, which has resulted in the antiviral being ineffective in protecting humans from the disease.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that intensive industrial farming of livestock is creating “an opportunity for emerging disease”.
Scientists have predicted that the bird flu virus could mutate into a highly pathogenic strain which will pass itself on to humans and likely cause a pandemic as deadly and contagious as the coronavirus. All it takes is for a few humans – or even one – to eat a chicken or an egg carrying the strain.
For all the talk of “free range”, most flesh from factory farms breeding chicken, cows, pigs, and other species, is obtained from animals housed in cramped living spaces, sometimes mutilated so that they cannot harm each other, vulnerable to infections, breathing air contaminated by ammonia, and sitting in cages encrusted with waste.
Factory farms have, in order to further economise, created novel diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as “mad cow disease”. This likely passed on from cow to cow and then to humans because the cows were made cannibalistic, being fed brain tissue from their dead fellows in order to save money on their nutrition. Any animal with a brain – and this includes fish – can become infected with spongiform encephalopathy and pass it on to the humans who eat it.
So far, our solution to tackling outbreaks has been to cull the animals, and then throw millions of healthy animals into laboratories and infect them so we can play Russian roulette with possible cures and toy with vaccines. Hundreds of chimpanzees were infected with increasingly powerful strains of the AIDS-causing virus, and some died from manufactured hybrid strains. Of course, we don’t have a cure – which we wouldn’t need if we could take the trouble to practise safe sex.
Amidst the lockdown, animal rights activists might well feel a sense of triumph, not least because the coronavirus pandemic has shown just how powerless the human species is to fight virus strains carried by animals. One can cull thousands of animals in an effort to contain the flu, but there’s something immensely satisfying about a creature that measures 120 nanometres in diameter bringing the world to a screeching halt.
Yes, animals too are paying a price for the lockdown. Some people do make efforts to feed stray animals, but chances are that many of them will die of starvation. But then, so will a lot of humans die. Economies across the world will take a hit – and all because we believe animals exist for human consumption.
With humans in several parts of the world stuck at home with not much to do but navel gaze, this is a good time for us to question our lifestyle choices and consumption patterns.
Being vegetarian is not much different from being a carnivore, because milk from animals was always meant to feed their young, not to be processed into products for human stomachs – as evidenced by the fact that most people develop lactose intolerance over time.
Exotic diets, with all sorts of animals including insects being put on one’s plate, are becoming popular across the world. We’re exposing ourselves to unknown pathogens, deservedly reaping what we have sown, in the opinion of animal rights activists like myself.
Petitions against dog meat and wet markets are all very well.
But the next pandemic might just as easily originate in chicken or fish or pig or cow flesh.
Plants tend to be less susceptible to pathogens.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment
The Dalai Lama and the death of humour
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com