Almost as soon as it became clear that our societies and economic systems would not continue as normal through the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to “Build back better” and even to “Build forward” began to grow louder and more urgent across the world.
COVID-19 is yet another in a series of diseases that have emerged from humans’ interactions with animals and has been preceded by HIV, Ebola, swine flu, and avian influenza, to name a few. But even as the policies to achieve this “build back” are being proposed, debated, and implemented, the root causes of the pandemic lack full recognition, muting the ability of these policies to prevent history from repeating itself, perhaps with an even more deadly pandemic, in the future.
Now that we are close to the approval of a vaccine, it appears that the circulation of COVID-19 in mink on European fur farms has contributed to the emergence of new variants of the virus. Some worry that these variants will reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines currently in development, underscoring how our intransigence in addressing our relationship with animals continues to put us at risk.
“Today we stand at a crossroads,” writes Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE in the foreword of The Animals’ Manifesto, a new joint-manifesto from 150 animal and environmental protection agencies calling for the inclusion of animal welfare in COVID-19 recovery policies. “Will we continue with ‘business as usual’ or, shall we choose to get together and develop a new relationship with the natural world?”
While COVID-19 should have been a clarion call to fully address our broken relationship with animals and chart a new course forward, many global institutions are still sidestepping the issue. Despite clear scientific evidence of animal sentience and the importance of animal welfare, and even recognition of these concepts by the World Organisation for Animal Health and its 182 member countries, animals are still marginalized in most international and national policy circles. This has, unfortunately, remained unchanged by COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting almost all countries of the world,” writes Goodall. “How shocking to realize that we brought this on ourselves. Through our disrespect of the natural world, and our disrespect of animals.”
This week, the UN General Assembly will host a Special Session on COVID-19. The Concept Note and Program circulated in a letter by the President of the General Assembly (PGA) states that the “two-day Special Session will allow many stakeholders to share their experiences in fighting the pandemic, reflect on the global response to date, and forge a united, coordinated, and people-centered path forward,” yet the word “animal” does not appear even once in the PGA’s letter.
In other policy frameworks, rather than work towards a socially just end to the commercial trade of wildlife, policymakers are calling simply to make the wildlife trade “safe.” And international financial institutions like the International Finance Corporation are continuing to funnel millions of dollars into intensive pig farms in countries like China, where the CDC is already monitoring a new group of swine flu viruses that have “pandemic potential.”
“Wildlife trafficking of live animals or their body parts, much of it illegal, is an industry now worth billions of dollars a year.” Dr. Goodall continues, “Conditions in these markets are horrifyingly cruel and usually very unhygienic; animals are forced into tiny cages often after long journeys with no food or water. Just as cruel, and often just as unhygienic, are the conditions created by the intensive farming of billions of domestic animals around the globe. When cows, pigs, poultry and so on are confined to cramped quarters, where they, too, are typically stressed, often kept alive only by the routine administration of antibiotics fed to them.”
However, there have been glimmers of hope. In July, the UN Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute collaborated on a report on how to prevent the next pandemic. The report highlighted seven key drivers of pandemic risk, naming increased demand for meat, factory farming, and exploitation of wildlife as the first three. But it falls short of providing clear and obvious policy proposals to address these causes at their root.
Policymakers are now more meaningfully incorporating the concept of One Health, which recognizes the interlinkages between environmental, human, and animal health, into policy debates and proposals. However, One Health does have its shortcomings. For one, it tends to minimize the importance of animal welfare in relation to animal health. While the two are related, health does not ensure welfare.
One Health also fails to take into account the fact that animal health and wellbeing impact humans in many ways beyond health alone. A series of zoonotic diseases should by now have made it clear to us all how poor animal health and welfare have the potential to crash the global economy, harm livelihoods, and cause major disturbances to our fragile food systems. For this reason, the concept of “One Welfare,” which highlights the importance of improving animal welfare and extends the One Health concept to relevant issues beyond health alone, desperately needs to be addressed in COVID-19 recovery policies.
This is the impetus behind the new Animals’ Manifesto, a global call to meaningfully address our damaged relationships with animals in international policy. The Manifesto is being supported ahead of the UN General Assembly Special Session on COVID-19 by human rights, environmental, and animal protection NGOs from every continent of the world. Specifically, it calls for policies to shift towards plant-based and plant-rich diets, replacing factory farms with sustainable and regenerative agroecological practices, and ensuring a just transition away from the commercial trade in wildlife.
“The Animals’ Manifesto does not conveniently ignore the central role that improvements in animal well-being and a fundamental change in our relationship with non-human living beings has in COVID-19 recovery and financing efforts,” writes Goodall. “If we care about our children, grandchildren and onwards we must tackle these problems. Let us find a way out of the disastrous mess that we have inflicted on the planet. Before it is too late.”
The joint-manifesto also calls for the welfare of animals to be protected in vaccine development, and for safeguards for the welfare of animals in communities including companion animals and working equines during lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions. The set of policy proposals, if adopted by international institutions and national governments, would not only contribute to animal health. They would also contribute substantially to reducing climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
A clear-eyed understanding of the risks that our persistent, pervasive exploitation of animals poses is a prerequisite for the transformative change that is needed. It is critical that policymakers at the global level begin to address the animal in the room. Our ability to prevent the next pandemic and ensure our common future depends on it.
Jessica Bridgers is the Executive Director of World Animal Net, where she works to strengthen the animal protection movement's presence in global policy. She has a background in biology and policy.