It would be nice to think that all our pressing concerns were connected, so that progress on one front meant progress on others. We want an end to this pandemic and to prevent future pandemics. Ethical people also want many other things. For example, they want better treatment for animals. But are these goals linked, or are they instead independent of each other, or even in conflict? Questions about animals and the pandemic have come up at three points since the novel coronavirus started to spread at the start of 2020.
The Beginning. It’s believed that the first carriers of the coronavirus may have been bats, and that the virus may have jumped from bats to other wild animals and then to domestic animals and humans at the Huanan wet market in Wuhan, China. Wet markets are wet from the water used to clean the floors. They sell animal products but also fruits and vegetables. Dry markets sell packaged goods that don’t require any wet clean-up.
For people who care about the treatment of animals, the animal portion of a wet market is a nightmare. At these markets, which exist in many countries, live animals are kept in crowded conditions, they’re killed and butchered, and they may also be cooked and served to customers. And all these things happen in close proximity to each other. To animal advocates, there’s something peculiarly troubling here, both because of what animals endure and because wet markets seem to involve a special degree of callousness in human beings.
Wet markets are not only very bad for the animals involved, but bad for humans, since the mixing of all these things – captivity, killing, cooking, eating, domestic animals, wild animals –enables viruses to infect humans. It appears, then, that two ethical projects are linked here—preventing cruelty to animals and preventing pandemics. In fact, the philosopher David Benatar wrote, in the New York Times, “Simply put, the coronavirus pandemic is a result of our gross maltreatment of animals.”
Wet markets may have started the pandemic and wet markets are cruel, but is the pandemic due to the cruelty? It’s telling that you could address the health problem but do nothing about the cruelty problem – by cleanly separating killing and butchering, butchering and cooking, cooking and serving, animal handling and eating, domestic species and wild species. In fact, the road viruses take from wild animals to humans can be shut down by shifting to the type of meat production that’s typical in the US, where a half dozen domestic species are housed indoors in one set of locations, killed in other locations, and cooked in completely different locations. The separation of these activities is more healthful, but not less cruel.
In fact, bad hygiene in wet markets is only adjacent to cruelty but not directly linked to it. When the proximity problems are in the spotlight, cruelty to animals will be illuminated too, but proximity and cruelty are different. It’s easily possible to be concerned with preventing pandemics, but not with reducing cruelty.
The Middle. One virus hotspot in the US has been meatpacking plants — a euphemism, because this is where animals are first slaughtered, then disassembled, and then put into packages. Animals are lined up and moved into slaughterhouses so quickly that mistakes are made. Cattle aren’t always effectively stunned before being shackled and killed — though the error rate has been reduced in recent years. Meatpacking plants are full of cruelty, and they are virus hotspots, but are they virus hotspots because of the cruelty?
It doesn’t seem so. The reason why there are outbreaks is because workers stand shoulder to shoulder, dismantling animal bodies. They’re actually closest to each other at the stage when the animal is already dead. To add to the danger – to humans – slaughterhouses are very noisy places. So people can’t communicate without yelling at each other, which increases the risk of airborne droplets causing infection.
Now, the cruelty to animals and problems for humans do share an underlying cause: producing meat as cheaply and efficiently as possible. So they’re not completely independent of each other. Still, the efficiencies that make meatpacking cruel to animals are not identical to the efficiencies that lead to outbreaks. The speed of the killing process is cruel to animals, because it leads to errors. The dense packing of workers down the line leads to virus transmission. In fact, current efforts to solve the second problem are not solving the first. Workers are being outfitted with personal protective equipment. And, as the ultimate solution to coronavirus outbreaks, the meat industry is now starting to design butcher-robots, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Of course, if we didn’t eat meat at all, there wouldn’t be any slaughterhouse outbreaks. And that’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s recommendation in a New York Times article about meat and the pandemic (“The End of Meat is Here”). But as a response to the pandemic, it’s an odd stance. Who would suggest an end to nursing homes on grounds that they’ve been the leading site of outbreaks? Or an end to residential colleges, to prevent disease outbreaks? “The end of meat” only seems mandatory as a pandemic solution if you’re already convinced that there are animal-centered reasons to stop eating meat.
The End. A third locus for thinking about the pandemic and animals is the animal lab. There is now a mad dash to find a vaccine. In thousands of research labs that are involved in the search, animal models are in use. Researchers are using mice, hamsters, ferrets, marmosets, macaques, and other species. Here we have the worst case scenario. Improving the treatment of animals is in outright conflict with finding a vaccine.
Or at least it appears to be. This is a complex and contentious topic, but most researchers do believe that animal models are helping them understand the coronavirus and will assist in the development of a safe vaccine. It’s very hard to believe that the researchers who are testing out theories and drugs on various species are wasting time and money and ought to immediately do their research on human subjects, not only for the sake of animals but to make the fastest progress on finding a vaccine. Considering these issues about “the end”, it’s especially clear that animal-concern and pandemic-concern can’t be in perfect alignment.
Now, some who are writing about animals and the pandemic aren’t making any strong claims about animal mistreatment as the cause of the pandemic, or vegetarianism as a necessary part of the solution, or animals as unnecessary to vaccine research. They’re just saying that when you look around in the locations that matter, pandemic-wise, you will see things being done to animals that ought to concern us. For example, Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri say that animal cruelty and COVID-19 are “two dark faces of wet markets” — suggesting no causal link. They say our self-interested concern about COVID-19 simply creates “the opportunity for a change of attitudes toward members of nonhuman species.”
The pandemic is certainly a learning opportunity. It’s exposed a multitude of problems, some of which are directly linked to the way the pandemic has spread, where it has spread and where it hasn’t, and who has been affected. We’ve been forced to lose some illusions we may have had about the effectiveness or our government services and political leaders, and vaunted health services like the Centers for Disease Control in the US. We’ve been taught lessons about human weakness, but also some lessons about strengths.
In addition to all these directly pandemic-relevant lessons, there are lessons about separate matters. When you look at the way a slaughterhouse works, in order to understand outbreaks, you may also find out about the immigrants who work in these places, and how they come to do these jobs, and how they are affected by immigration policies, and so on. Or you may find out about the environmental damage done by the meat industry. The mistreatment of animals is in this second category: not strictly on the pandemic agenda, but in the territory of some pivotal pandemic events. We need to know about it, but for the sake of animals, and not to protect ourselves from the virus.