On April 3, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, joined the chorus of voices calling for the immediate closure of China’s “wet markets,” where the coronavirus is widely believed to have originated. Butchers, trappers and consumers mingle openly, slaughtering and trading live animals; it is the perfect environment for zoonotic diseases to leap from an infected creature to a human.
But China is hardly the only country where live animal markets and other squalid operations are common. Some 80 of them operate within the five boroughs of New York City alone, according to Slaughter Free NYC, a nonprofit group that opposes them. They are near residences, schools and public parks.
Less notorious but much more commonplace threats to public health are the “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) scattered throughout the South and Midwest. These factory farms warehouse thousands of animals that wallow in their own waste with limited or no airspace, routinely creating conditions for the proliferation of super bugs and zoonotic pathogens. Nearly the entire supply of animal products consumed in the United States originate from these industrial factory farms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have warned us against the risks of factory farms for years. The unsanitary living conditions inside CAFOs weaken animals’ immune systems and increase their susceptibility to infection and disease. The factory farms’ response has been to pump the animals full of antibiotics that make their way into our food supply and onto our dinner plates, systematically fostering in humans a lethal resistance to the medicines that once quelled everyday infections. Such practices have brought humanity to the point that the WHO now estimates that more than half of all human diseases emanate from animals.
Many of us are privileged enough to stay at home in safety with our loved ones to avoid the coronavirus. But how much thought are we giving to the individuals and communities that are directly affected by our choices and lifestyles? Tens of thousands of Americans face threats to their daily health and well-being from neighboring CAFOs and the animal waste that mists or flows over their properties. They are unable to be “safer at home.” Will we apply the same energy we have put into overcoming this virus into preventing future outbreaks and helping dismantle the industries inflicting so much damage to communities across the country?
As this disaster continues to ravage society, we must examine our role in the emergence of the coronavirus and our vulnerability to a growing number of diseases as a result of our impositions on the animal kingdom and the environment. This probe cannot end with bats, monkeys, pangolins and other exotic wildlife supposedly to blame for recent contagions. It should encompass all of the supporting industries that contribute to the debilitation of communities, our susceptibility to illnesses and our complete defenselessness in their wake. A real public-health reckoning would have us reshape our patterns of consumption, curbing our dependence on animal products. A bacteria-infested (and inhumane) food supply makes people sick.
Covid-19 is a devastating indicator of what’s to come if we don’t make rapid and sweeping changes, the least inconvenient of which is closing down all live-animal markets and CAFOs in the midst of this global pandemic.
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Mara is an actor and activist. Phoenix is an actor and activist.