If you have spent as much time online in the past few months as I have, you’ve undoubtedly seen an onslaught of memes and articles about the COVID-19 outbreak containing anti-Chinese sentiments, including President Trump referring to it as the “Chinese Virus.” Mainstream media, right-wing nationalists, and, sadly, even some animal-rights activists have jumped onboard with xenophobic and racist sentiments placing the blame on Chinese citizens for this pandemic because some consume animals such as pangolin or bats. This type of blaming is not only disturbing because it’s xenophobic in nature, but it’s also not the entire story.
While COVID-19 is undoubtedly a zoonotic disease (originating from non-human animals), it is still debatable which host species carried it to humans. What we do know is that 60 percent of all known infectious agents and 75 percent of all new emerging diseases come from non-human animals, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority originate in Western farmed animals, not Chinese markets.
It is our duty to reject anti-Asian rhetoric now during the COVID-19 crisis as xenophia is on the rise and long after the global pandemic begins to simmer down. There is no place for racism in the vegan movement.
It’s easy for many Westerners to finger-point at other cultures for the “strange” habit of eating non-farmed animals, but the reality is that farming and eating any animal puts us all in harm’s way for zoonotic diseases.
In the West, we are not safeguarded against deadly diseases because we eat “culturally normal” animals like pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep. A prime example is the fact that over 500,000 people died from Swine Flu (H1N1), a virus traced back to pig farms in North Carolina. You’ll notice this wasn’t pegged as the “American Virus.”
The species we raise, kill, and eat aren’t as important as the fact we are killing and eating them in the first place.
Genocide by zoonosis
Over thousands of years, Europeans domesticated, bred, and lived closely with animals deemed livestock. The diseases and germs that the animals carried crossed species and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Over time, new generations gained an increased immunity, passed down from their ancestors who survived the epidemics that had previously ravaged the continent.
When Europeans invaded the Americas, they brought livestock diseases with them, and the pandemic exploded all over again. It’s estimated that between 1492 and 1600, these zoonotic diseases killed 56 million indigenous people (there were so many deaths that it actually changed the climate globally). Smallpox, influenza, and measles—to name a few—all originated in Western farmed animals and mutated into their present form.
European zoonotic diseases have even been purported to have been used against indigenous First Nation peoples as a form of biological warfare in the form of blankets infected with smallpox.
We are making it worse
Present-day intensive animal farming unnaturally crowds millions of animals together in a single location, making them perfect breeding grounds for disease. On modern egg farms, 180,000 hens can be housed in one shed alone, and even those with an “organic” label have been found to pack upwards of 1.6 million birds at an operation. Viruses and organisms mutate quickly in these conditions and can jump the species barrier into humans—creating novel zoonotic diseases that spread rapidly in our population. As the recent slaughterhouse closures show, animal agriculture creates inhumane, unsanitary living conditions for farmed animals and deplorable working conditions for humans that put everyone at risk.
Not only is this way of farming going to continue to result in more pandemics, but this same system is also destroying the very tools we had to fight the viruses and infections coming from them.
In the United States, antibiotics are given to animals in the food system. They are not fed these drugs for treatment, but rather as “preventative” measures against the filthy conditions they’re forced to live in. The overuse of antibiotics gives infectious organisms more opportunities to become resistant to some of the only tools we have in fighting them. “Superbugs,” MRSA, and other multidrug-resistant organisms are increasing at an alarming rate, and it can all be tied back to this dirty industry.
The xenophobic and racist attitudes about other cultures eating non-farmed animals don’t stop with fear around disease, though. Many Westerners look down on Koreans and Chinese for eating dogs, all while eating pigs—animals scientifically proven to be smarter than canines.
Horrific displays of racism against Japanese people splash across my social media feed with annual dolphin and whale slaughters there, while the slaughter of more than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises dying in fishing nets goes largely unchallenged.
Organizations run by white Westerners raise funds to literally hunt impoverished Black Africans for poaching megafauna on the continent, at the same time doing nothing to stop the hunting and poaching of threatened and endangered species, such as wolves, in their own countries.
I have yet to hear of one single reason for these arguments that weren’t steeped in racism and xenophobia.
We must do better
I believe that what COVID-19 has shown us is that we really aren’t separated as people. This virus doesn’t care about national borders, who you are, what language you speak, how much money you make, or what color your skin is. We have to be united as a species to face the threats we have created with our actions. Our domination of other animals, including fellow humans, has created the situation we are all in.
Although millions are infected and thousands have died, no one truly knows how many people will ultimately suffer from the coronavirus. What we do know without a doubt is that unless we change—unless we stop raising and killing other animals—that this won’t be the last pandemic humans face.
An actively anti-racist global movement that rejects the old systems of domination and oppression of our fellow earthlings is what we need now.
Keegan Kuhn is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, co-director of the acclaimed films Cowspiracy and What The Health.