Is Speciesism Driving the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Reluctance to question humans’ exploitation of animals creates a dangerous disconnect in the public's understanding of COVID-19 and its ongoing risks. Lorelei Plotczyk shares her perspective.

pig portrait dark
Rick Aplin

Perspective Health Lifestyle

During a global pandemic, likely caused by the exploitation of animals, humanity’s relationship with other species continues largely unchanged: meat flies off the shelves and a docu-series trivializing the plight of captive wild animals is an Emmy-nominated success. What makes it possible for most humans to continue “as normal” instead of questioning our relationship with or use of non-human animals? Perhaps it’s thanks to the social construct we call speciesism.

Speciesism is defined as the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals. It is an implicit bias that spans across cultures and renders humans unable or unwilling to connect animal exploitation to the resulting consequences—current catastrophe included. Diseases originating from animals, called zoonoses, have “caused nearly every pandemic in human history” per TIME Magazine, yet that causal relation is largely relegated to scientific and activist discussions that don’t permeate the popular conversation. Widespread reluctance to examine the root cause of the pandemic is creating a disconnect in the prevailing discourse.

Humanity’s relentless exploitation of animals, especially for food, dramatically increases opportunities for zoonoses to infect people. Given the scope and scale of that undertaking, the truly shocking thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it didn’t happen sooner. By exploiting animals, humans willfully perpetuate the largest vector for zoonotic disease that would not otherwise exist. And while no longer interfering with animals is logically the best approach to prevent future zoonotic pandemics, many people are reluctant to give up the resulting pleasures, especially animal products. Society’s collective failure to change accordingly would be akin to continuing to smoke after a lung cancer diagnosis—with the whole world obligated to pay the price.

Viewing Zoonoses Through the Lens of Speciesism

Zoonoses outbreaks, which are “mediated by human action in most cases” per 2012 research, have quadrupled in the past 50 years. A 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) report calls much of this surge “directly related to the human quest for more animal-sourced food”—yet speciesism guides the narrative away from human culpability. Zoonotic pathogens are often described as “jumping” to humans due to “contact” or “mixing” with animals, while humanity’s role is neutralized to detectives figuring out where “problematic interactions” occur. Such framing serves to mystify the primary reason for the interactions while masking their exploitative nature.

Humans’ predatory “dominion” over non-human animals is the reason why zoonoses now account for 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases. We annually breed, rear, and slaughter domesticated animals by the billions while destroying biodiverse habitats for grazing and feed crop production; we hunt, fish, trade, and even farm trillions more so-called wild animals—all while exploiting countless others for clothing, entertainment, experimentation, and sport. Worse, we do so despite having the tools and technology to phase out animal exploitation altogether. Widespread aversion to examining avoidable yet normalized violence against animals prevents honest discourse, and therefore meaningful conclusions, about the resulting scourges.

Zoonoses rose in prevalence when—surprise!—humans began forcing wild animals into domestication, largely to serve as our own species’ living “stock,” around 10,000 years ago. Since then, researchers note, so-called livestock use has continued to present “new health challenges and new opportunities for emergence of zoonotic pathogens.” One such “opportunity” resulted in losing up to 90 percent of the Native American population to livestock-derived zoonotic diseases brought over by European colonists. Today, slaughterhouse workers and animal farmers are “at the leading edge of the human-animal interface” and “more likely to become infected with a zoonotic virus” per CNN. Yet ending that cycle by phasing out livestock use altogether is largely excluded from the general conversation. Politicians are unwilling to risk their popularity and scientists refuse to draw the logical conclusions to which their own research points, with rare exception.

Humanity has long focused on prevention and response measures for pandemics that avoid any honest reevaluation of the human behavior that is primarily driving them: animal exploitation. Instead of challenging the status quo, mainstream news organizations continue to reinforce this disconnect by omitting, or even distorting and blocking, vegan advocacy linking animal consumption to zoonoses. A recent Sentient Media survey finds that nearly all trending COVID-19 coverage omits the connection between animal exploitation and pandemics, at best using vague language like “it came from animals.” Like other oppressive mindsets, speciesism creates an insidious alternate reality in which we blame the victims (when we bother to consider them at all) instead of the victimizers.

Who’s to Blame for COVID-19?

The wildlife trade is widely implicated in unleashing the novel coronavirus, but conventional animal farming may have played an equally crucial role. Leading virologist Christian Drosten tells the Guardian that humans create opportunities for coronaviruses to switch hosts “through our non-natural use of animals—livestock.” At the China food market linked to early COVID-19 cases, wild animals mixed with livestock—something TIME calls “a big risk” and the National Review “a deadly combination.” Per 2014 research, domesticated animals like livestock serve as “amplifiers” of pathogens that emerge from wild animals and are “the central ones in the network” of zoonotic disease transmission. A July 2020 UN report on preventing the next pandemic reiterates that although wild animals may harbor zoonotic diseases, livestock act “as a bridge for transmission between the animal hosts and humans.”

The novel coronavirus may have originated in bats, but it required an intermediary host to infect its first human. Farming advocacy group GRAIN calls farmed pigs an “obvious candidate” given their human-like immune systems, and Scientific American reveals that an earlier strain of coronavirus likely crossed from bats to pigs. The latter cites infectious disease epidemiologist Gregory Gray in warning that “looking for novel coronaviruses in pigs should be a top priority” due to the massive global scale of pig farming. Ceasing to breed and consume pigs and other animals—these activities being the actual root of the problem, versus the bats or pigs themselves—would be far more effective. Whether or not COVID-19 is ever traced to humanity’s bacon obsession, it appears inevitable that our appetites for animals will continue to unleash other diseases like swine flu and avian flu (despite the livestock sector’s denial).

The Science Is Clear, Just Not Convenient

Science links zoonotic diseases to animal exploitation and especially to animal farming. A 2004 joint report by groups including the World Health Organization identifies “increasing demand for animal protein” as a “common theme” among the risk factors for zoonoses’ emergence. The Lancet published research in 2007 linking zoonoses to “the environmental degradation associated with livestock” and in 2012 to “animal production systems.” Reuters’ coverage of another 2012 study warns “most human [zoonotic] infections are acquired from the world’s 24 billion livestock,” adding that “exploding global demand for livestock products means the problem is likely to get worse.” Now that COVID-19 is here, the July UN report on pandemic prevention makes clear that increasing global meat demand only exacerbates future pandemic risk. Referring to the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 and the novel coronavirus, a group of doctors writing for the Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention points out that “the two largest pandemics in the past 100 years revolve around our food choices—specifically, the consumption of animals.” Sadly, such credible scientific research continues to prompt little meaningful action.

Experts have articulated for decades that livestock production risks catastrophic pandemics; Dr. Michael Greger, author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, details as much in an eerily prescient 2008 presentation. That same year, a GRAIN report on emerging viruses notes “governments’ unwillingness to confront the dominant powers of industrial livestock farming”—an unwillingness that evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace implicates as causing the current pandemic. He says that the likelihood of the livestock industry unleashing “a virus that might kill a billion people” is regarded ”as a worthy risk.” A social media poll shows that many animal consumers willingly accept those terms.

The pandemic risk posed by meat and dairy production is not exclusive to the most intensive forms of animal farming (often referred to collectively as factory farming). Per the UN FAO, suggestions claiming otherwise are “misleading.” Its 2013 report states that “disease emergence in livestock is not specific to large-scale, intensive systems” and includes “animals roaming freely over large areas.” The 1918 influenza pandemic, after all, may have originated from pig and poultry barns predating today’s highly-mechanized and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Modern subsistence farming remains anything but industrial, yet it still contributes to the emergence of zoonoses; 2012 research finds a strong correlation among dependence on livestock, poverty, and zoonotic disease. Either way, planetary boundaries dictate that the vast majority of current global demand for animal products can only be met by CAFOs, which are known breeding grounds for pathogens.

Whether free-range or intensive, animal farming also unleashes zoonoses by destroying habitats. Despite dominating global land use, livestock production provides just 18 percent of humanity’s calories and 37 percent of our protein. Extensively transforming forests for grazing and growing feed encourages emerging diseases by causing unnatural overlap of domestic and wild species, amplified disease activity in displaced animals, and disruptions in species populations that, when balanced, naturally keep diseases more contained. “Livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss,” a 2015 study states. A 2018 study finds that shifting to plant-based farming has the extraordinary ability to offset habitat loss by freeing up an area of land equivalent to the U.S., China, the European Union, and Australia combined. An evolution away from livestock reliance is an unparalleled solution for mitigating habitat loss.

Of the many experts connecting habitat loss to zoonoses, several specifically implicate livestock farming. One Health initiative co-founder Laura H. Kahn links livestock production with “the widespread deforestation that has contributed to the emergence of zoonotic diseases.” Pandemics expert Sonia Shah points out that replacing wild habitats with animal farming “ratchets up the risk of disease emergence,” yet, “we’ve razed an area around the size of the continent of Africa to raise animals for slaughter.” Global health expert Alanna Shaikh says that zoonotic outbreaks are encouraged by “pushing into the last wild spaces on our planet,” including “when we burn and plow into the Amazon rainforest so that we can have cheap land for ranching.” Again—despite the misleading vilification of vegan-associated foods like soy or even mainstream favorites like almonds and avocados—ongoing large-scale deforestation and corresponding habitat destruction are unavoidable without a widespread dietary shift to plant-based foods.

Incredibly, the extreme biosecurity risks of animal use are not limited to zoonoses. Livestock production is also driving the rise of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E. coli as well as worsening human antibiotic resistance—categorized by the U.N. as a developing crisis on par with AIDS and Ebola. Livestock vaccinations are now being touted as a solution to prevent zoonotic diseases, yet they only help to stop the spread of existing rather than novel viruses. In the words of bioethicist Jan Deckers, “As high populations of farmed animals are maintained only because of human demand for their products, many consumers of animal products are more likely to impose diseases upon other human beings compared to those who refrain from such consumption.” The prevalence of speciesism prevents most people from taking even a shred of ownership for the collective consequences of animal exploitation, no matter how extreme.

Oppressive Behaviors Are Toxic (Literally)

Rather than blaming those we “otherize,” both human and non-human, significantly decreasing the likelihood of future pandemics requires ceasing all forms of animal exploitation. Racist rhetoric blaming China for COVID-19 diverts attention away from humanity’s collective behaviors that drive the emergence of novel zoonoses. Sam Scarpino, who advises public health agencies on controlling emerging epidemics, explains that despite the myopic public focus on Asia, new flu strains emerge from American livestock operations “almost every summer.” Farmed animals continue to be transported vast distances for slaughter in conditions that risk public health at facilities that prioritize profits over attempted disease reduction. Vested interests prompt some to decry any meaningful critique of animal agriculture’s necessity, instead invoking improved monitoring and regulation—yet humanity has had over 10,000 years to get this right. The next zoonotic disease outbreak with the potential to infect humans is already spreading amongst farmed pigs.

The COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies the negative feedback loop often created when the powerful exploit the vulnerable. Using some animals for food subjects other animals to laboratory experiments in an attempt to control the resulting preventable zoonotic diseases and dooms others still to mass “depopulation.”  Animals confined to fur farms and zoos for fashion and entertainment are even contracting this virus. As the human death toll continues to rise, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 compounds the routine exploitation of slaughterhouse employees. While no one is immune to the health and ecological consequences of animal exploitation, poor and marginalized people, primarily communities of color, are often hardest hit by its negative effects. COVID-19 is no exception.

Even in the midst of a pandemic linked to animal consumption, the U.S. government continues to favor animal farming over plant-based food production. As with already-existing farm subsidies, livestock producers are receiving the lion’s share of COVID-19 agricultural aid. Slaughterhouses—widely euphemized as “meat plants”—are now deemed “critical infrastructure,” prompting the Center for Biological Diversity to observe that “Trump is willing to sacrifice workers’ lives to prop up the nation’s inhumane and environmentally destructive addiction to meat.” Although it’s undeniably regressive to pretend as though abundant alternatives to animal products do not exist, this particular form of denial spans across the political parties. The media, in typical form, mischaracterized the predicted “meat shortage” as a “crisis,” rather than an uncannily-timed opportunity to socially distance ourselves from meat and dairy. A USA Today investigation has since exposed that the meat shortage scenario was highly exaggerated to keep slaughterhouses operating.

Plant-Based Agriculture Has Never Caused a Pandemic

With so much of the current situation beyond our control, there is something humanity can do to avoid repeating history. The Lancet’s 2007 research advises that “a reduction in livestock production” would “decrease human contact with new infectious agents,” while its 2012 research finds “wide-scale adoption of a plant-based diet” may “result in a decreased threat of zoonotic disease.” Infectious diseases advisor Dr. Daniel Schar names “mitigated risk from pandemic disease” among the many “planetary health dividends” of plant-based diets, a sentiment that public health specialist Aysha Akhtar echoes in her 2014 TEDx Talk. One Health’s Laura Kahn suggests “consuming less meat (and raising fewer animals for food)” and “promoting meat alternatives or vegetarian diets.” Among the lessons that can be gleaned from scientific documentation of how the novel coronavirus emerged, per Forbes’ Jeff McMahon, is that humanity needs to “just eat plants.” Scientist Liz Specht writes that plant-based and cultivated meat is helping to “remove the food insecurity and zoonotic disease concerns inherent in animal-based food.” A team of international wildlife and veterinary experts concludes in a June 2020 report that humanity can “increase switching to plant-based foods to reduce consumption of, and demand for, animal products” to reduce the risk of pandemics in a post-COVID-19 world. Ecologist Carl Safina argues, “What’s needed to reduce the frequency of new diseases adapting to humans” from animals “is, basically, to stop farming and eating them.” The group of doctors writing in the Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention agrees, urging a reevaluation of, or even a moratorium on, eating animals. Scientist and physician Vural Özdemir considers COVID-19 as “a wake-up call to embrace veganism and animal sentience, and stop wildlife trade and commodification.”

Signs of an urgently-needed change in animal consumption are starting to surface. At the very least, reports NPR, COVID-19 has more people “rethinking their relationship” with meat. Sierra Club notes that because “COVID-19 struck at a time when global meat demand was [already] declining,” plant-based eating is now becoming more widely accepted as a form of environmental and political engagement. A Psychology Today op-ed contemplates a more dramatic shift to veganism emerging from this pandemic. The New York Times decisively names slaughterhouses as “the food chain’s weakest link” while declaring that “the end of meat is here.” A Harvard Political Review headline calls just as bluntly for the end of animal agriculture. Other mainstream outlets report that COVID-19 is catalyzing less reliance on animal protein and more demand for plant-based meat (for which U.S retail demand surged in March and April). July headlines report the UN’s projection that the biggest global meat-eating decline in decades is now underway, due in part to increasing public distrust of animal products. Many experts recommend purchasing mostly plant-based foods to stock up pantries while limiting grocery store trips. Per Specht, “taking animals out of our food system is easier than we may think”—and now, as many are experiencing firsthand, so is taking them out of our kitchens. Systemic roadblocks to veganism, such as food deserts, remain as deterrents for those in underserved communities, but various collectives and nonprofits are addressing dietary inequities to better establish veganism as a right for all. The global benefits to be gained by making plant-based diets more accessible, in concert with a widespread rise of both anti-racism and anti-speciesism, would be transformative.

Contemplating the pandemic’s aftermath, a renowned epidemiologist told the media that he hopes people will realize that humans are all “much more alike than different.” Anti-speciesism simply extends this realization to other sentient species. Those we use and kill with impunity are at our mercy; now, we all are at the mercy of a virus unleashed by that abuse of power. The “single and shared beating heart” begging us to change our ways, as depicted in Kristin Flyntz’s viral poem, belongs to animals, too. A global pandemic is just one type of catastrophe on a long list of those related to animal use. Imagine that it’s potable water (the depletion of which animal consumption is driving) instead of just hand sanitizer that we’re fighting over. Or, to quote one Twitter user, “If you think COVID-19 is scary, wait until antibiotics no longer work.” Embracing safer, more eco-friendly, and more ethical alternatives to animal exploitation is our best defense against the next potential pandemic and countless other preventable emergencies in the making. The idea that anyone should willfully default to animal violence persists due to nothing but a stale social construct.

So let’s aim to never “get back to normal.” The truly transformative wake-up call of COVID-19 would be for humanity to finally acknowledge the disastrous consequences of all oppressive hierarchies, including speciesism, and begin to dismantle them, together, for the benefit of all sentient beings.

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