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Covid-19 – When Will We Heed Nature’s Warnings?

Barbara Gardner is the Chief Executive of the Animal Interfaith Alliance (AIA) which publishes the magazine ‘Animal Spirit’. Barbara wrote this article in the spring 2020 edition of Animal Spirit, asking why the lessons of past pandemics, which all derived from animal abuse, have not been learned.

Covid-19 is not the first deadly virus to emerge from humanity’s misuse of our fellow sentient creatures, and, if we do not learn from our mistakes, it will not be the last.  Whilst it may be the worst and most global virus so far, there could be worse to come.  What if the next pandemic killed 90% of people infected, like the 1996 version of Ebola, instead of the 2% of Covid-19, and had the transmission rate of Covid-19? 

As an interfaith community concerned for the welfare of animals and the environment, it is incumbent upon us to campaign against our misuse of the natural world, not only for the environment but for the decent treatment of our fellow creatures.  Let us first look at the lessons of the past and then look at what we need to do, as an interfaith movement, to bring about the changes required to protect our fellow creatures and ourselves.  It is no longer enough that we as individuals do the right thing by living a vegan lifestyle, if our fellow humans continue the activities which cause such mass suffering and global devastation.  We really do have to confront their behaviour and make changes at the global level through the United Nations (UN).

Missed Lessons from the Past

When we steal animals from their natural environments and confine them in unnatural conditions, we can tear viruses loose from their natural hosts to whom they do no harm.  They then need to seek new hosts to whom they can be harmful, such as humans.  Let us look at past examples of when this has happened and ask what we can learn from them.

The Plague (or Black Death): The Plague comes from bacteria living in fleas which are carried by other animals, such as rats.  The bacteria infect humans when these flea-carrying animals are brought into contact with them. The Black Death of 1347-1351 is estimated to have killed between 75 million to 200 million people and is thought to have originated in Asia and travelled to Europe via the Silk Road where it was spread by fleas carried by black rats.  This was the world’s second plague pandemic. The first, which was known as the Plague of Justinian, occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries and killed 40% of the population of Constantinople. Following the Black Death there continued to be a whole series of plague outbreaks until the early 19th century when these were reduced largely by better hygiene.

Influenza pandemic of 1918 (or Spanish Flu):  This involved the swine/avian flu virus H1N1 and is thought to have started in an overcrowded UK troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples in France which was near a pig and poultry farm.  A virus was being harboured in birds which migrated to pigs and then to the humans in the camp.  It infected 500 million people around the world, 27% of the population.  The death toll is estimated to have been between 17 million and 50 million people.

Rabies: Despite animal control and vaccinations, 17,400 people died of rabies in 2015, mostly in Africa and Asia.  Rabies is caused by a virus that comes from bats but is also carried by dogs.  It is spread in saliva when infected animals bite or scratch others, causing inflammation of the brain and usually death.  In the Americas 95% of rabies cases come from bat bites, not dogs.  Many of the wild animals found in Chinese wet markets can also carry rabies.  Rabies can be controlled by vaccinations.

HIV (Human immunodeficiency viruses): HIV-1 and HIV-2 are believed to have originated in primates in West-central Africa and to have transferred to humans in the early 20th century. HIV-1 appears to have originated in southern Cameroon through the evolution of SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) that infects wild chimpanzees.  It is thought to have jumped the species barrier on at least three separate occasions, giving rise to three groups of the virus, M, N and O.  Humans who participate in bushmeat  activities, either as hunters or vendors, commonly acquire SIV, although the virus is easily suppressed.  However, several transmissions of the virus allowed it to mutate into HIV.  The earliest documented case of HIV dates back to 1959 in the Congo.

Lassa fever: Lassa fever infects around 300,000 to 500,000 people a year, resulting in 5,000 deaths a year.  It occurs in the Lassa belt of Africa which includes Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leonne and Liberia and is caused by the Lassa virus which is transmitted by contact with the urine or faeces of the natal multimammate mouse.  There is currently no vaccine.

Ebola: Ebola is a virus carried by fruit bats which when transmitted to humans has a very high mortality rate – 25% to 90%. It was first identified in 1976 in two outbreaks in Sudan and the Congo.  In Sudan 284 people were infected and 151 people died. In the Congo 318 people were infected and 280 died, an 88% fatality rate.  Between 1976 and 2012 the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 24 outbreaks involving 2,387 cases with 1,590 deaths.  The largest outbreak occurred in West Africa during 2014 and 2015 with 28,646 cases and 11,323 deaths.  In July 2019 the WHO declared another outbreak in the Congo as a world health emergency.  Out of 3,444 cases, 2,264 people died.

The disease can also be picked up from fruit bats by other animals and then passed on to humans. In 1996, in Gabon, 90% of infected villagers died after eating an infected chimpanzee.  Other animals have died of Ebola including dogs and chimpanzees.  According to a 2006 BBC News report, 5,000 Ugandan gorillas had died of Ebola.

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome): MERS, also known as camel flu, was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2002.  It is a coronavirus which originates in bats and is spread to humans via camels, although the camels appear to be immune to it.  Fortunately it has a low infection rate with less than 2,000 cases being reported, although it has a 36% fatality rate and there is no vaccine.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome): In 2002-03 an outbreak of the SARS corona virus in China infected 8,098 people, resulting in 774 deaths after spreading to 17 other countries.  The virus originated in cave dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan Province and had been transmitted to humans by the intermediary of civets.  Although there were no further cases of this virus, it is related to the current coronavirus.

Nipah: the Nipah virus occurs in bats and spread to humans in Malaysia in 2018, infecting 700 humans, resulting in a 50% to 75% death rate.  There were also 17 deaths from the Nipah virus in Kerala in India.  The disease also spreads to pigs and in 1999, after the disease was first identified, millions of pigs were slaughtered in Malaysia to prevent the spread of the disease.

Covid-19:  Covid-19 is the latest corona virus which is believed to have originated in bats and spread to humans in 2019 from a wet market in Wuhan in China.  It has spread globally very rapidly and is continuing to spread with deadly consequences and has been the worst pandemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The clear lesson to be learned from this is to respect virus-carrying bats and bacteria-carrying fleas and their hosts.  Also, it is not enough to stop eating and mixing with bats but we must stop eating and mixing with other animals that act as intermediaries for the virus between the bats and ourselves.  Hygiene has to be improved.

Wet Markets and Factory Farming

When the Covid-19 virus’ natural host is killed,  it looks for the nearest new living host

In wet markets, where live animals which carry viruses, such as rats, bats and pangolins to name but a few, are kept caged alongside each other in unnatural, cramped conditions, often being slaughtered amongst each other, the potential for creating new viruses like SARS and Covid-19 is ripe.  They have been time bombs waiting to go off.  Unless we stop these markets now, we will continue to invite new pathogens to infect us.  We now know that they can be transmitted very quickly all over the globe.  If a new virus was created that had the transmission rate of Covid-19 and the fatality rate of Ebola, we would see worldwide death on an unimaginable scale.

But whilst it may be easy to criticise the wet markets of China and other places for spreading pathogens, we must not overlook the possibility of spreading similar diseases ourselves through our own factory farms and long distance transport, which also create appalling conditions.

Swine flu H1N1: Swine flu is common in pigs worldwide and although it does not commonly transmit to humans it can do so where people have regular exposure to pigs.  In 2009 the swine flu pandemic H1N1 infected between 700 million to 1.4 billion people and resulted in up to 575,000 fatalities.  In 2015 31,156 cases of swine flu were reported in India resulting in 1,841 deaths.  Keeping large numbers of pigs in unnatural, confined states such as in factory farms, encourages the infection and spread of swine flu. Other swine flu outbreaks that have occurred which have arisen from pig farms include: 1976 US, 1988 US, 2007 Philippines, 2009 Northern Ireland, 2015 Nepal, 2016 Pakistan, 2017 Maldives.

Avian Flu H5N1: Influenza A/H5N1 was first isolated from a goose in China in 1996.  Human infections were first reported in Hong Kong in 1997.  Since 2003, more than 700 cases of Asian H5N1 in over 60 countries have been reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  There are many strains and although fatalities are relatively low compared to other diseases, it is feared that it is only a matter of time before a new strain emerges which is more deadly.  Although less prevalent in humans the disease has caused pandemics amongst the bird population with the main breeding grounds being indoor commercial poultry, live poultry markets and backyard flocks.

Why have lessons not been learned?

Given the wealth of information we have about past pandemics, all of which were derived from our abuse of animals, why have we not analysed this data before and acted to prevent further pandemics?  How have we allowed Covid-19 to happen?  Who is responsible for this monumental negligence? Perhaps there is nothing positive to be gained by playing the blame game, but we must now address how we are going to prevent this ever happening again.  I believe that the UN must take responsibility for this.  Massive penalties need to be imposed on negligent governments.

Bringing Change through the United Nations (UN)

Clearly, living a healthy vegan lifestyle, whilst good for ourselves and the animals we have not harmed, will not stop the mass suffering of animals and global pandemics.  We must take action to change the habits of our fellow human beings too.  How can this be done when so many of them are unable or unwilling to change their habits? 

Many refer to use of higher welfare farming, but this is a drop in the ocean of global farming practices and, at current levels, does not prevent mass cruelty or the pandemics we have experienced.  Bad practices have to be ended and it is the responsibility of the UN and the governments of individual nations to enforce this.  Otherwise we will see more pandemics and some of them will have both the spread of Covid-19 and the infection rate of Ebola.  Even if the whole world was vegan and there was one wet market left in China, that could be enough to wipe out human society as we know it.  The potentially massive effect on non-human species has not yet been fully understood.

Animal advocacy organisations must lobby at the highest levels, including governments, the EU and the United Nations to end the practices of wet markets, factory farming and long distance transport – in fact all practices that harm animals.  The 20 member International Coalition for Animal Welfare (ICFAW) really needs to press this point home at the UN and the Animal Interfaith Alliance, as the alliance of the faith based animal advocacy organisations, will lobby the UN as well. 

As a relatively impecunious organisation, we have never been able to travel to conferences to lobby and have done all our campaigning electronically.  We have punched well above our weight in terms of campaigning activity to £ spent, as Marian’s report on the next few pages highlights.  Now all organisations will find themselves limited in their travelling abilities but AIA will be well prepared for the new world order and we will do our best, on behalf of our member organisations, to lobby for an end to animal cruelty globally. ֍

Researched from Wikipedia. Copyright – Animal Interfaith Alliance 2020

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