Humanity has seen many societies make great leaps forward in the name of equality, amongst them the end of the slave trade, equal voting rights for women and, more recently, the legalisation of same-sex marriage. There is a form of discrimination, however, that has recently entered the cultural mainstream due to COVID-19: the unhealthy relationship between humans and animals.
It is intriguing to consider why any division between human and animal was created in the first place. Humans are, after all, animals. We typically assume that humans are privileged over other animals because of our capacity for complex language, rationality, and the like. However, the extent to which we exercise this privilege and discrimination against other species is causing biological havoc. Some research suggests COVID-19 emerged from a wet market in Wuhan; a place where humans, proverbially, play God and extort animals.
This is not the first time a disease has crossed between species. The Bubonic plague, for example, spread rapidly, killing 75 million people; one of the key reasons for this unprecedented transmission was the unsanitary conditions of the 1300s, where stray animals and hordes of rats lived among humans. At the time, authorities made the ill-advised decision to massacre all street cats and dogs, which allowed for the rat population to grow exponentially and infect many more humans than cats or dogs ever could. The Bubonic plague is the first in a long line of cases where reckless human intervention and disregard for animal life has worsened conditions, rather than improved them; more recently, in 2009, Swine Flu broke out in the awful conditions of American and Eurasian pig herds.
If either of these cases had a didactic lesson for humanity, we have not learned it. Although humans and animals have very different capacities, needs, and desires, the two groups have an inseparable similarity: an organic body. This is something that we seem to forget, perhaps because we have gone far beyond a Darwinian struggle for survival.
"Humans and animals both socialise, suffer, and die. Frequently, we deny that animals face these experiences."
There are no other species (that we know of) who have built civilisations, delved deep into the sciences and humanities, or even engineered spacecraft to probe the outer limits of solar systems. Despite this, our bodies are still organic and we remain vulnerable to the many forces of nature, as animals do. COVID-19 is a harrowing reminder of this fact – and it should compel us to consider our place in the world more deeply.
A good starting point for this kind of contemplation is to begin at the very idea of the human/animal binary. The two concepts are treated as distinct; as if humans were, in some way, entirely different to animals. The transmission of COVID-19 from an animal to a human challenges this kind of thinking, showing us that we are commonly susceptible to diseases that affect organic bodies.
Hogwood Farm at Oxhill in Warwickshire, United Kingdom. Credit: Viva.
Humans and animals both socialise, suffer, and die. Frequently, we deny that animals face these experiences. If we truly believed that animals suffer like we do, we would not force them to live in such excruciating conditions. A person with even the most basic sense of morality would wince at the thought of putting a human in a cage, but will gladly buy caged eggs from a supermarket. This divergence is largely due to ingrained ways of thinking that have existed throughout history. Take the recent stance of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who denied animals the ability to even die, insisting instead that only humans could die where animals merely ‘perish’.
"Animals cannot speak for themselves. They cannot organise protests to have their rights recognised, nor can they organise a list of demands in the first place."
These demarcations have been influential in the way we think about humans as an elevated species – a species that has ascended so far above its fellow animals that it no longer considers itself a part of the animal kingdom. Whether that notion is based on ignorance or sheer arrogance, it is becoming increasingly important to accept the fact that our privileged status does not allow us to do whatever we’d like to the environment. If we accept this, then we must adopt a new approach to our relationship with animals, and the natural world more broadly.
Given the worsening conditions of factory farms and the effects of ongoing deforestation, it is unsurprising that new and old diseases are mutating to the extent of infecting humans (more recently, bubonic plague has re-emerged in Mongolia). We should, therefore, be critical of our own thinking towards animals. This involves thinking about the place of animals under the law.
There is a caveat to this, however. Putting animal rights into policy will not resemble liberation movements of the past. Animals cannot speak for themselves. They cannot organise protests to have their rights recognised, nor can they organise a list of demands in the first place. In other words, they lack any means of political representation on their own behalf. They are entirely reliant on humans to advocate on their behalf. This places a substantial demand on us, not only for the sake of animals, but for our own longevity as a species. If farms and laboratories continue operating in the same capacity they are now, then we will continue to witness diseases cross species lines and kill hundreds of thousands – if not millions - of humans.
This amounts to a simple fact: reconsidering our relationship with organic life will be, in practice, entirely different to the impetus that demanded social change in the past. We cannot take a passive role in the creation of a new relationship with animals. If we do not create better standards for animal treatment, they will never come about.
So, we must be vigilant and proactive. Animals will not organise rallies. Animals will not write to parliament. Animals will not make conscious choices about the products they consume. But we can. And if we value our own longevity on Earth, we can no longer adopt an attitude of reckless consumption and general indifference to the supply chains that fuel our day to day lives. We’re already facing some of the devastating effects of climate change, COVID-19 is just another consequence of our unhealthy relationship with the rest of our planet.
The interruption to our normal lives caused by COVID-19 places us at a crossroad; we can remain in our old ways, or we can reconsider the beliefs and attitudes that have proved themselves to bring devastating consequences. I advocate for the latter. We must think of ourselves as inextricably tied to the natural world and the animals that reside in it. By doing this, we can begin to develop a sustainable relationship with our planet. There has never been a better time to act on this advice. The question is: will we?