Reading Time: 7 minutes

Maybe it will be in several months, or a year. Maybe when the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has killed most of the people it will kill – maybe then. Or it will come as a single moment: we will remember a before, and talk of an after.

Maybe it will come in increments, resisted by anger and disbelief but overcome with persistence and grief. Or, aware of our species fallibility, our unwillingness to upset the status quo, our ability to talk ourselves out of inconvenient truths, maybe the moment will not come at all.

And if it doesn’t, then goodbye.

The moment is now, maybe. As you are reading these next two lines: an instant of worldwide acceptance of what is staring us in the face.

First: the coronavirus is an emergency not solely of health but of injustice. And second: the injustice is not only that we are forced to ‘lose loved ones before their time’ (as the UK prime minister crassly put it) but that foremost, this emergency of injustice has been caused by the exploitation of animals. 

Without this ongoing and unnecessary violence, we would not be experiencing this awful global pandemic at all.

Has that moment arrived? Those who work for animal justice hope so: for Carl Safina COVID-19 is a ‘wake up call‘ to which we’ve already hit snooze too many times. 

For Farm Sanctuary’s Gene Baur, the coronavirus is a karmic reminder of the interconnectedness of humans and animals. Activists in Berlin made this point earlier this week, and activists in London from Pause The System took the message to Parliament and Boris Johnson.

Now is the right moment to ask the mainstream media to lead every headline with the fact that 75 percent of newly emerging human diseases come not as if by magic from ‘animal sources’, but from our acts of killing, eating, and exploitation of those animals. This is where COVID-19 has come from.

The history of pandemics, from the Antonine Plague to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) event, ranked by their impact on human life. (Source: Visual Capitalist

We’ve hit snooze on this for decades. Nothing has been learnt since the 2003 coronavirus SARS (source: bats and civet cats, caught from the wild and kept live in animal markets for food). Or from the coronavirus porcine epidemic diarrhoea of the 1970s. Or HIV, which jumped from monkeys killed for bushmeat to around 25-30 million human victims. Or the 2009 swine flu, that jumped to humans from pigs.

This is how COVID-19 has spread. At the moment the definitive zoonotic source remains unknown, but the two main suspects are pangolins and horseshoe bats, both of which are killed and sold in wet markets in Wuhan, China, where scientists believe the global pandemic originated.

But do not blame the Chinese, or only wet markets.

“At present we understand very little about coronavirus or other viruses circulating in wildlife or their potential to emerge or recombine with existing coronaviruses as public or animal health threats,” wrote Linda Saif 16 years ago, at the Institute of Medicine Forum on Microbial Threats, in the wake of the 2004 SARS epidemic. “Hopefully the epidemic will generate new interest and funding for these fundamental research questions.”

And scientifically, SARS did – although not enough to stop the 2012 coronavirus MERS (source: dromedary camels, with a 35 percent death rate).

The crisis we face is not a scientific one. It is not a matter of herd immunity or vaccines or sanitisation. The crisis we face is social and political.

It is social, because of the way our societies respond to such crises, varying from culture to culture. 

The ways in which even the most successful societies have contained the COVID-19 coronavirus are not, and have not, responded in any effective way to the last century’s lessons that we need to stop encroaching upon habitat and killing animals. (The H1N1 1918 Spanish Flu which killed anywhere between 17 and 50 million people, and came from chickens, and was made worse by ‘modern transportation’ as soldiers, sailors and civilians, was now 102 years ago: what did we learn from stopping it happening again?)

Most of all it is a crisis of politics. In a minor way, and a major way.

The minor way is what you think of as politics: how our leaders, such as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, are responding appropriately, or not, to the crisis.

Death is an injustice when the life of another is taken ‘before their time’. This now infamous Boris Johnson quote, which will come to haunt his legacy, asked us to accept that there will be ‘loved ones’ you and I are potentially to see die because of coronavirus COVID-19.

It is a crass statement at best, and at worst a cover-up for the UK’s now-defunct official policy, hidden behind science fast losing its credibility. 

It privileged those most protected from health threats (those with access to private healthcare; those who’ve led a stress-free life avoiding underlying health conditions) while sacrificing the elderly, vulnerable and those under austerity capitalism who live marginalised lives, all of whom were put at risk in the ‘herd immunity’ strategy.

Let me make it clear. The original political decision was a death sentence for many, which has changed under pressure from the public, and new scientific advice. And decision-makers at institutions such as universities and businesses, frightened of losing credibility, income, and fearing bureaucratic chaos, will have blood on their hands by keeping their doors open for business. 

Government responses are political decisions as much as ‘scientific’ ones. And it is the failure of politics and politicians that has allowed this coronavirus to wreak havoc.

But as big as you think this is, this is only the minor issue.

The major political issue is this: we have done everything we can to exclude animals from our political decisions, political life, and political justice. We have reserved politics and social life for human animals, at the expense and exploitation of all other beings.

There is a direct line – it could not be more direct – from the devastation of wild habitats, as we encroach upon the ever smaller and further dwindling jungles, forests, landscapes, seascapes and homes of the animals we share this planet with, to the pandemic we are witnessing. A direct line.

If you want to think selfishly, when else would be the time to recognize there over a million diseases in the other animals on this planet, one of which will most likely wipe out we human animals if we continue to push our way into their worlds?

It could be a political decision, a social decision, not to do this. But we don’t. Because our social and political cultures are built upon the exploitation of nonhuman animals: we destroy their homes, we exploit or eat their bodies, and so we get their diseases.

Animal agriculture, in small or large form, comes with coronaviruses. Coronavirus are common in farmed animals. Bovine coronavirus is a staple of the animal agriculture industry. As yet, there is no link between bovine coronavirus and a coronavirus infecting humans. 

But it is widely accepted that the current novel coronavirus jumped from animal to human at the wild animal/seafood market in Wuhan, China. (As SARS did, via civets, kept alive after taken from the wild, in other Chinese live animal markets.)

So many people cry for the end to China’s wild animal trade. Even animal organizations such as the Political Animal Lobby are focusing on closing down these markets.

But why would the Chinese do that when America and the UK continue to intensify their pig and poultry production? We cannot think that ending the exploitation of wild animals will end these outbreaks, when we pay no attention to diseases in wild or farmed animals.

We continue to outstrip the world’s antibiotics supply by pumping them into farmed animals because the intensified feedlots and warehouses in which they suffer are breeding grounds for diseases, such as bird flu and swine flu.

Concentrated ways of raising animals have reduced the cost of animal protein but led to a ‘large population of domestic animals that are grown in close proximity to dense populations of humans,’ said Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Duke University, who calls industrialized farming systems ‘incubators, if you will, for emerging viruses’.

The majority of our human responses to this coronavirus, and all the zoonotic diseases that have come before, have been – when seen through this lens – failures to respect human and nonhuman life. Our human responses are crimes of injustice.

Suggesting we just need to shut Chinese wild animal markets and that will fix the problem is both racist and a total failure to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is this: if we switched to a plant-based economy we would no longer have pandemics such as those that see COVID-19 and other zoonotic killer viruses wipe across our planet. 

This outbreak happened because people kill and eat animals. Whether that is a wild snake or a factory-farmed pig, it is because people kill and eat animals. The expansion and intensification of factory farms, and the inevitable spreading of these farms further out into animal territory (not only in the Amazon, but everywhere), is how animals who live free in the wild come to make contact with farmed animals who we eat.

The moment might be now. Tell everyone: this outbreak happened because people kill and eat animals. The Carnivore Dieters, the Meat MaximalistsProtein Brothers and Iron Sisters, hunters, butchers, flexitarians, those ‘but I only eat chicken now’ people. Tell them: this outbreak happened because people kill and eat animals.

Unless we right the injustices of animal agriculture, fishing, incursions into wildlife, habitat loss and devastation, whatever will come next – a pandemic a hundred times worse than COVID-19? – will wipe out human life, or most of us. Zoonotic pandemics are the biggest threat to human life.

If we do not change course and radically alter our food system as part of a plant-based economy, then we will have brought this upon ourselves. And the animals who die in the process will have deserved no part of the blame.

We have been warned. Towards the end of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a novel depicting the wiping out of our current civilisation by a coronavirus epidemic similar to SARS called the Georgia Flu, two of the surviving characters are remembering what life was like before that line that divided everything between before and after.

“Do you remember chocolate chip cookies?” asks one.

“I dream about chocolate chip cookies. Don’t torture me,” the other replies.

“He’d known for a long time by then that the world’s changes wouldn’t be reversed,” the novel continues, “but still, the realization cast his memories in a sharper light. The last time I ate an ice-cream cone in a park in the sunlight. The last time I danced in a club. The last time I saw a moving bus. The last time I boarded an airplane that hadn’t been repurposed as living quarters, an airplane that actually took off. The last time I ate an orange.”

Gather your memories. Maybe this is the moment we finally recognize our betrayal of other animals and how their exploitation for food came to its grisly, diseased end. Maybe this will be the last time you remember eating an animal. Or maybe you won’t remember anything at all of what came before.

Dr. Alex Lockwood

Alex Lockwood is a writer and senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books), a vegan memoir about the relationship between climate change and the food we eat. His debut novel The Chernobyl Privileges (Roundfire) was shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award 2019. He has written journalism, fiction and nonfiction for The Guardian, Earthlines, Zoomorphic, Like the Wind, SWAMP, The Dodo, The Millions and more. He is a regular speaker...