As soon as the news broke about the coronavirus—a highly transmissible and deadly virus thought to originate at a market where slaughtered and live animals are sold—I braced myself. It wasn’t because it was just another reminder of how deeply destructive it is to eat animals; I braced myself because it originated in China, specifically in the city of Wuhan. So far, there have been more than 300 human deaths linked to the coronavirus, all but one occurring in China, and there have been more than 14,500 lab-confirmed cases in 23 countries. The reason why I prepared myself, though, was because I knew I’d read responses that are as virulent as the virus itself: the casual (though no less pernicious) racism and its close cousin, xenophobia, that always seems to accompany these stories in social media shares.
Removing the racism
If you’re on Facebook, you have likely seen it, too, either with this story or another, about the cruel treatment of animals in China. You will see people commenting that Chinese people are “barbaric,” and that they are “disgusting monsters” in a “backwards” country. Even though the virus is spread person to person, the coronavirus is “payback” for cruelty to animals. In addition to anti-Chinese bigotry, we also see anti-Asian racism in the comments.
Can we please just take a step back? There is no shortage of senseless atrocities committed against animals around the globe. Just as eating certain species is a custom in some countries and anathema in others, practices that are normalized in one culture are considered savagery in another. This is not to shrug off the cruelties inflicted on animals but to say that we should be able to speak up against the brutalities without repeating racist tropes, and without a massive blind spot towards our own country’s accepted forms of violence towards animals. Just because one is more familiar than another doesn’t mean it’s any less cruel. Now that the coronavirus is likely going to be considered a pandemic (meaning it is an ongoing epidemic on two or more continents), shouldn’t we be focused on educating about how animal agriculture puts humans, other animals, and the planet in jeopardy, rather than tossing around ignorant racist slurs that should have been retired long ago?
Normalizing animal cruelty
If we look at the example of the so-called wet markets in China, thought to be where the coronavirus originated, we often see bigotry and hateful rhetoric. But sticking to the facts would be a better approach and one that does not deflect from our own accepted cruelties. Because, again, China certainly does not have the final word on brutality against animals. There is no country with a clean slate with regard to the treatment of animals.
Is a large-scale factory farm really any more humane than an open-air market? Is it really more civilized to breed animals into existence to eat them at the end of their short lives—to cut off their tails, sear their beaks, punch holes in their ears, forcibly impregnate them, and remove babies from their mothers? Can we really claim that the Western system of animal agribusiness is more sanitary when as many as 15 percent of the American population contracts a foodborne illness each year and the industry is policing itself more and more rather than being subjected to government inspections, minimal as they are, as well as running slaughter lines quicker than ever?
The dangers of our own habits
The point is not to shut down a conversation about how animal agribusiness endangers us. Instead, we should seize on this moment to educate the public about how our habit of eating animals creates unsanitary, unsafe, and cruel conditions that put us all at risk. We need to do this while staying vigilant against using racist, xenophobic, and myopic rhetoric, though; both our own and that of others.
Is it more important to spread bigoted hate-speech or to advocate for a more compassionate and sustainable planet? If the answer is the latter, I think we know what approach makes the most sense. This is a moment when we can be educating and uniting, not doubling down on racist attitudes.
Marla Rose is co-founding partner of VeganStreet.com.