Over the past months, the world has faced unprecedented times. With Covid-19 sweeping through countries around the globe, whole economies have been shut down in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of a virus that, to date, has infected over 8 million people and killed nearly 500 thousand. Businesses have lost their custom and families have lost their livelihoods, children’s education has been disrupted, vulnerable individuals have struggled with forced isolation or cohabitation, poorer members of society have gone hungrier or colder on the streets.
There is hardly any aspect of human activity that has not been impacted by Covid-19 and life as we knew it before the pandemic seems a thing of the past. Although contagion is now more under control and lock-down measures are gradually being lifted in different countries, we are facing the risk of a second epidemic wave, not to mention the socio-economic aftermath of the first wave. It is estimated that the pandemic has resulted in a recession far greater than the one the global economy experienced just over a decade ago and much more rapid than the one that hit it in the 1930s. Nobody really knows how long recovering from this crisis might take, and it is hard to envisage when we might go back to some kind of normality and what this might look like.
There has been much speculation about the causes of such a global disaster, including various conspiracy theories that have promptly been debunked. Scientists’ consensus is that bats were Covid-19’s original hosts and that the virus started spreading from a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, China, where wild and domestic animals were kept and slaughtered in appalling conditions that weakened their immune systems and favoured the mutation and interspecies transmission of the virus. This has prompted widespread calls to ban ‘wet markets’ and the wildlife trade more generally, but it seems clear that deadly outbreaks do not just originate within such a trade. In a recent article, Barbara Gardner, Editor of The Ark and Chief Executive of Animal Interfaith Alliance, highlighted how previous pandemics have emerged in widely different circumstances, all of which involved humans’ encroachment on wild animals’ habitats, as well as improper contact with and misuse of animals, both wild and domesticated. In this regard, the crammed and filthy conditions in which animals are kept and transported in the factory farming system across the globe, where they are constantly deprived of what makes life worth living and pushed to the limits of their endurance, are not dissimilar to the conditions found in ‘wet markets’.
In 2012, biologist and ethologist Marian Stamp Dawkins’ book Why Animals Matter made a strong utilitarian case for animal welfare. The author argued that, even setting aside any considerations around animal sentience, if animals are kept in poor welfare conditions, they become unable to cope, their immune system weakens and they become breeding grounds for disease, with serious economic and public health consequences. Eight years later, the Covid-19 pandemic is demonstrating just how serious such consequences can be. But, as Catholics, as Christians, and as people of faith concerned for all of God’s sentient creatures, surely we must look beyond utilitarian arguments and allow ourselves to respond with empathy to the suffering of our creaturely brothers and sisters caught in production systems that exploit them as though they were mere commodities. Billions of animals trapped in factory farming spend their short lives ‘locked-down’ in extremely depriving conditions over which they have no control; many of them suffocate to death on the trucks and ships that transport them across the globe for days and weeks on end; they all die alone at the hand of executors insensitive to their fear, pain and suffering. What Covid-19 has inflicted upon us humans over the past months, we humans have been inflicting upon other animals on a massive scale for many decades. As far as we know, viruses do not have the capacity to empathise; but we do, and this bestows upon us all the responsibility to care for the suffering of all sentient beings.
This year marks the fifth anniversary since the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’: on Care for our Common Home, which denounced the despotic anthropocentrism that has come to characterise humans’ relationship to God’s creation, and which called for an ecological conversion based on universal solidarity with all creatures. If ever there was evidence that such an ecological conversion is urgently needed and that the way in which we treat animals must radically change, Covid-19 is it. At the same time, the measures that many countries have taken to deal with the pandemic have demonstrated that radical change is possible and beneficial in many ways. During the lockdown, around the world, air pollution levels plummeted, sea waters and skies cleared, and all kinds of wildlife visited empty coasts and deserted cities. By grounding human economies, curtailing human activity and forcing humans to retreat in their homes, the pandemic has given nature a much-needed respite and has allowed animals to claim back the land and livelihoods humans have so recklessly taken away from them. By forcing us to temporarily retreat, the pandemic has also demonstrated the immense impact that our one species has on the planet and has unequivocally highlighted how climate change is our own doing. All the while, during our forced retreat, many of us have had a chance to spend more time with our families, enjoy simple pleasures, (re)connect with nature and (re)discover its nurturing power. Albeit at great cost, the pandemic has led us to ponder other, more environmentally sustainable ways of life and lifestyle choices we will all need to make going forward, if we are to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis that is upon us. No amount of personal protective equipment, hand-washing or social distancing will be able to safeguard us from the forces of nature disarrayed by human recklessness. In this regard, Covid-19 has given us as a society and as individuals an opportunity to pause, reflect and reset. If we do not take this opportunity, the enormous cost of the pandemic will pale in comparison to the cost of the ecological collapse that awaits us.
Since its publication five years ago, CCA has worked tirelessly to promote the ecological conversion and bring about the vision of universal solidarity advocated by Laudato Si’, with particular concern for the animal creation. As with many other organisations, our activities have been significantly disrupted by the pandemic, but we have continued to work as hard as ever. We have denounced humans’ reckless treatment of animals and called for an end to the kind of animal abuse that has led to the pandemic. Together with other charities, we have petitioned the United Nations to end the wildlife trade worldwide and called on the World Health Organisation to promote the use of advanced technologies relevant to humans, rather than outdated animal testing, to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. We have continued to raise awareness about the plight of fish, routinely subjected to horrendous farming practices, out of sight and out of mind. We have joined the efforts of other charities and research projects aimed at persuading the British Government to revise the Agriculture Bill, which is currently under review and which, if not revised, would end up lowering animal welfare in farming practices and increasing the risk of new pandemics. Through our Phillis Mary Trust, we have provided much needed financial support for small animal charities that have been struggling as a result of the pandemic. In order to allow our members and supporters to follow these and other activities more closely, we now produce a fortnightly newsletter providing regular updates about our work; and, in order to reach as many people as possible with our message, from the next issue, The Ark will be going entirely digital. As ever, though, what allows us to make a difference for animals is the generosity of our supporters, without which CCA could not exist. Please, help us continue our vital advocacy and education work by donating, subscribing to The Ark, becoming a member, leaving a gift in your will, and letting your family and friends know about CCA.