Nickie Charles – Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick
According to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, the COVID-19 pandemic ‘is a direct warning that nature can take no more’ and that ‘humanity’s destruction of nature’ must stop (Andersen, 2020). In Jane Goodall’s view the pandemic is directly related to human treatment of animals, specifically wild and farmed animals: ‘Our disrespect for wild animals and our disrespect for farmed animals has created this situation where disease can spill over to infect human beings’ (Harvey, 2020). She is referring to COVID-19 being a zoonotic disease that has ‘jumped’ from other animals to humans and the likelihood of this happening increasing when habitats are disrupted and animals are farmed intensively.
Zoonoses have a long history. They include measles, which jumped from cattle to humans during domestication; bubonic plague which decimated European populations in the middle ages; and ‘the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals… managed to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity’ (Quammen, 2012: 20). In recent decades there has been an increasingly rapid emergence of zoonoses. Their names are familiar: Ebola (1976), HIV/AIDs (1981), Avian flu (1997) and SARS (2003). The first two emerged in Central Africa: Ebola originates in bats and has decimated chimpanzee and gorilla populations as well as killing humans (Aguirre, 2017), while HIV-1 emerged from chimpanzees and has killed around 30 million people worldwide (Quammen, 2012: 41). Avian flu and SARS emerged in Hong Kong and China, respectively, with avian flu originating in poultry and SARS, a coronavirus, being traced to horseshoe bats and wet markets in southern China (Daszak, 2020).
The speed with which zoonoses are emerging challenges us to rethink those practices that encourage their emergence and the way that animals, particularly wild animals and farmed animals, are incorporated into social and economic relations (Donaldson and Kymlicka, 2011).These practices entail the mixing of human, farmed and wild animals thereby blurring species boundaries and facilitating the sharing of pathogens between different species. But while zoonoses demonstrate our kinship with other animals, separation is proposed in order to minimise their emergence (Shukin, 2009); separation in the interests of protecting humans from pathogens originating in animals and gaining ‘mastery’ over zoonotic diseases (Hinchcliffe, 2015:29).
These practices of mixing are located in certain places, usually the global south (Keck and Lynteris, 2018) and, in the Western imaginary, are associated with the racialised Other (Shukin, 2009). Thus, wet markets in China and bushmeat hunting in Central Africa have been singled out as sources of zoonotic disease along with the small-scale, mixed farming practised in much of the global south. Not only are these places where there is seen to be dangerous mixing, but the practices which constitute them are seen as ‘backward’ and belonging to traditional societies that have no place in a modern, globalised world. While bushmeat hunting is an integral part of subsistence economies in many parts of the world, and wet markets are an important source of fresh meat, vegetables and fruit throughout Asia, these practices are now integrated into global supply chains which has changed both their scale and the socio-economic context in which they take place.
Bushmeat hunting has become a commercial activity that has expanded with increasing de-forestation and is now part of the illegal international trade in wildlife. Subsistence hunters are integrated into the global economy (Subramanian, 2012) and, while they hunt to feed their families and poor households rely on bushmeat (Wolfe et al, 2005; Friant et al, 2015), many of the wild animals they kill and trap end up on dining tables in New York and Paris or as exotic pets for the rich and famous (Murray et al, 2016). Consumers in the global north are implicated in this killing which ‘is the fourth largest illegal trade behind drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting, worth an estimated £15 billion annually’ (WWF, 2020). Hunting is also gendered. It is engaged in by men who would often prefer to gain a living in some other less risky way if alternatives were available (Friant et al, 2015).
A similar story can be told about wet markets which are now located in densely populated cities rather than being part of a rural economy (Zhang and Pan, 2013). In China wet markets are the main suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and seafood and there is a cultural preference for ‘live and freshly slaughtered meat’ (Wu et al, 2017: 19). This means that animals may be killed in the market or taken home for slaughter. Most wet markets do not sell wild animals though the wet market in Wuhan, which has been (inconclusively) associated with the emergence of the Coronavirus, did. Rapid urbanisation and rising incomes have led to a massive increase in demand for meat; in Shanghai, for instance, 190 million chickens are consumed annually, 120 million of whom are bought in wet markets (Wu et al, 2017). These practices, particularly in those wet markets where wild animals are sold, make it easier for a species-jumping pathogen to spread and, given the ubiquity of global travel, it can make its way round the world extremely rapidly as we’ve seen with Coronavirus.
Separation and strict biosecurity are seen by ‘health-related international organisations’, such as the World Health Organisation, as a means of preventing or stopping outbreaks at source (Hinchcliffe, 2015:29). The practices of biosecurity they promote are those that operate in the intensive farming systems characterising the global north – at huge expense to animals’ health and well being and also to human health; this sets the ‘virtuous’ bio-secure global north against the ‘interspecies intimacy’ and ‘contingency’ characterising the global south (Hinchcliffe, 2015: 30). But intensive farming systems provide ideal conditions for domestic animals to acquire pathogens from wild animals and to transmit them to humans as illustrated by avian flu and swine flu (Quammen, 2011; Bailey et al, 2018). Despite this, intensive farming is expanding in the global south and displacing small farmers whose inter-species mixing is often blamed for harbouring zoonoses. In South Asia, for instance, public health experts assume that although ‘novel H5N1 [avian flu] strains develop in close-knit industrial poultry operations, domestic birds (household chickens and ducks, rather than wild birds or industrial poultry) must be the main vessels through which H5N1 viruses “spill over” into human bodies’ (Nading, 2013:69; Hinchcliffe, 2015). In this way intensive farming practices are privileged over those of small producers even though they are implicated in the spread of zoonotic disease.
Alongside this commitment to intensive farming is a search for animal hosts and reservoirs with ‘singular animal species’ bearing ‘the burden of epidemic blame’ (Keck and Lynteris, 2018: 7). Furthermore, millions of farmed animals are killed in the interests of protecting human health (Nading, 2013:67; Rohr et al, 2019). All the chickens in Hong Kong, over 1.2 million, were killed in response to the 1997 avian flu outbreak and, before horseshoe bats were identified as the reservoir species for Sars, civet cats were the prime suspect and thousands were killed in China (Quammen, 2011; Keck and Lynteris, 2018). This response is anthropocentric: animals are expendable in order to protect human life although the trauma that this causes to farmers and others involved in animal husbandry cannot be over-estimated (Law and Miele, 2011). Furthermore, ‘portraying animals as incubators, carriers, reservoirs, or spreaders of human infection, and ultimately a human extinction event, grounds the scientific study of zoonosis on hard anthropocentric ground’ (Keck and Lynteris, 2018: 10). In operation here is a clear hierarchy of value, at the societal level human life is valued over animal life and species boundaries are violently reinstated.
The idea that other animals are expendable is inherent in the way that global capitalism fragments and destroys the ecological systems that wild animals are part of in order to expand food production and extract natural resources. Animals, like the whole of the natural world, are seen as a resource to be exploited, with nature being treated as a (free) source of raw materials and a dumping ground for waste (O’Connor, 1998; Sachs, 1999). It is this exploitation that is causing the more rapid emergence of zoonotic diseases because it fragments habitats thereby increasing human contact with wild animals, either through people moving into areas inhabited by wild animals or wild animals moving into areas near human habitation. In both cases, wild animals who are under stress come into greater contact with humans and domestic animals creating ideal conditions for the emergence of zoonoses. COVID-19 has illustrated that this not only has consequences for human health but also has severe economic consequences which are felt most keenly by those who are the poorest and most marginalised. It also throws into sharp relief that farmed and wild animals are integral to global capitalism and that their exploitation has severe economic as well as health consequences for societies around the world.
In support of this argument it has been found that the main causes of zoonotic ‘spillovers’ are changes in land use – particularly the expansion of agricultural production but also extractive industries including logging and mining (Rohr et al, 2019; Jones et al, 2013). Road building and other infrastructure associated with these activities causes fragmentation of habitat and increases contact between humans, their domestic animals and wild animals. As well as exposing people to zoonoses, this exposes wild animals to novel diseases ‘that can devastate wild populations’ (Rohr et al, 2019:450). The exploitation of forests is often associated with the global south, the accelerating destruction of the Amazon under Bolsonaro in Brazil being a case in point, but it also takes place in the global north. In North America, for instance, fire and logging are the primary drivers of deforestation (Harris et al, 2020). The resulting fragmentation of habitats has led to an upsurge in Lyme disease linked to an upsurge in the population of white footed mice due to a reduction in the mouse’s predators.
Image 1. Cattle and deforestation in the Amazon (source: Nigel Dickinson/WWF).
The expansion of agricultural production is the main driver of deforestation in the global south which in Latin America is agricultural commodity production’ while in Africa it is ‘shifting agriculture’ (Harris et al, 2020). Food production already takes up around ‘40% of the planet’s free land’ (Crist et al, 2017:261) with intensive farming being seen by many as the only way of feeding the burgeoning human population which is predicted to exceed 11 billion by 2100 (Rohr et al, 2019; Bailey et al, 2018). It is the expansion of cattle and soy bean farming that is destroying the Amazon (Jordan and Howard, 2020) and it has been estimated that, by 2024, China’s consumption of soy beans could outstrip production in Brazil, the United States and Argentina (Crist et al, 2017). This demand reflects China’s ‘growing meat consumption’ and it is unclear how this, along with increasing demand from other countries in the global south, ‘can be met without conversion of more forested or other uncultivated lands’ (Crist et al, 2017:261) to food production, devastating wildlife habitats and undermining biodiversity even further. This questions the compatibility of the exploitation of farmed animals for food with the preservation of wildlife habitat and biodiversity which is essential not only to reduce the risk of further zoonotic outbreaks (Ostfiedl and Keesing, 2017) but also to preserve the ‘natural capital on which human populations depend’ (Johnson et al, 2017: 271).
The scale of loss of biodiversity is graphically illustrated by figures that show that while global human and domestic animal populations are increasing, wildlife populations are decreasing – in 2018 of all mammals on Earth, 60% were farmed animals, 36% were humans and 4% were wild animals and 70% of the global bird population was farmed (Bar-On et al, 2018). This is so extreme that we are now experiencing an anthropogenic mass extinction event with it being forecast that a million species will become extinct in the next few decades (IPBES, 2019). COVID-19 highlights the way our dysfunctional and exploitative ‘relationships with animals are [not only] driving the emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases’ (van Dooren, 2020) but also destroying our life support systems. It challenges us to rethink the exploitation of other animals that underpins human societies and to replace it with systems which promote their flourishing on which our survival as a species depends.
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Header image source: Lough Neagh