The COVID-19 crisis is a reminder that humanity is inextricably connected to one another and the other species that share this planet with us. As the virus tears across the globe, nations are helping other nations and states helping other states. This is both an act of compassion and wise self-interest since the virus is no respecter of race, walls or national borders. Conflicts between nations have fallen into the background as we gather around a common enemy. It’s a bit as if space aliens have shown up and all the sudden we have a bigger problem than fighting with one another.
At the local level, there is an incredible outpouring of compassion and huge uptick in reaching out to and helping our neighbors. Being suddenly shut off from one another we realize how much we actually value other members of our community. I even heard a BBC report that in some places in Africa gangsters have switched from distributing drugs to distributing food in neighborhoods they normally terrorize.
If we’re lucky, and smart, some of these new ways of being with and toward one another will stick once we’ve made it to the other side of this particular global crisis.
There’s another layer of connectedness this pandemic reveals and that is the direct connection between humans, other species and the planet that sustains us all. Scientists now believe COVID-19 originated in Wuhan China from bats that transferred the virus to another species that then transferred it to humans. The place this likely happened is a place of commerce called a “wet market” because live animals are held there, often stacked on top of each other, to be purchased for human consumption. The most probable intermediary host was a pangolin, otherwise known as a scaly anteater. The pangolin is consumed in many Asian countries for its meat and the scales are consumed for their “medicinal value” believed to cure such maladies as excessive nervousness, excessive crying in children, cancer and sluggish breast milk production in women. The scales are also used to make everything from jewelry to high-end cowboy boots. Pangolins are now the most trafficked wild animal in the world and are critically endangered.
Wet markets are places of torture and terror. Wild and domesticated animals are kept in horrific conditions until selected for slaughter. The cat-sized pangolins are often force fed gravel to increase their weight and then kept balled up hanging or piled in nets. It might not be politically correct to say so, but the practice of consuming wild species due to some myth that it will cure your ills or make you more sexually potent is immoral. Period.
But let’s not fool ourselves that these horrendous and dangerous practices only occur in some far off place. As horrific as wet markets are, they really are no worse than commercial factory farms in the West. Those places are equal in terms of terrible conditions, suffering and terror (and by the way, I’m an old farm girl – I’ve seen it first hand). They are also equally dangerous to human health. The deadly flu pandemic of 1918 is believed to have originated in a massive chicken farm in Kansas. The swine flu pandemic originated in a crowded factory pig farm in Veracruz Mexico.
Forcing animals to live their lives in the torturous conditions inherent to factory farms is immoral. Period. It’s also dangerous to human health.
Not only are these animal factories the original source of pandemic diseases, but they also greatly imperil the people who work in them and the surrounding communities. Right now COVID-19 infections are exploding in these plants and they are finally being forced to shut down. The Smithfield Foods Meatpacking Plant in Sioux Falls Idaho alone is now one of the leading hotspots for infection in the United States. Half of Idaho’s total infections are in workers from that one plant.
To get a peak at the magnitude of this issue, consider this truly staggering current condition. According to a landmark 2018 study by the National Academy of Sciences, by weight humans and our livestock species now make up 96 percent of all mammal life on the planet. Humans ourselves account for about 36 percent of the biomass of all mammals and our domesticated livestock, mostly cows and pigs, account for the other 60 percent. This means that human expansion and our mass cultivation of livestock has reduced wild mammals to only 4 percent of all mammalian life on Earth. Similarly, the biomass of poultry is about three times higher than that of wild birds. This is a profound reshaping of the composition of living creatures on our planet. We tell children’s stories filled with lions and deer and frogs and hedgehogs but a more accurate depiction would be stories populated with caged cows, pigs and chickens. Is this really how we want our world to look and function?
One of the many profound learning opportunities the coronavirus is presenting is rethinking our relationship to animals, particularly those we “harvest” for food, materials and so-called medicines — the billions of creatures every year that suffer to meet the demand of human consumption at massive scale.
Perhaps there is an opportunity here to repair the bond we share with so many of the creatures that co-inhabit our world. Perhaps these pandemics are the pigs and the pangolins fighting back, Nature saying no more. If we’re lucky, and smart, we’ll listen.
We are after all inextricably connected to one another whether we realize it or not. The root of the word crisis traces back to the Greek word meaning “to decide,” many monumental decision points are before us at this historic time.