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Credit: sanjagrujic

News of the devastating coronavirus outbreak has led to swift action by the authorities in China in banning the trade in wildlife. According to Reuters, the virus which has killed more than 56 people with many more infected, has been traced to a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife. Animals listed for sale within the market, now closed, were reported to have included live wolf pups, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes and civets.

Scientists both inside and out of China have warned of the dangers of people eating animals involved in the illegal trade in wildlife.

After SARS – the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002-3 caused by a similar coronavirus to the one involved in this outbreak – Chinese scientists wrote papers on the risks of allowing people to trade and eat wild meat.

Zhang Jinshuo of the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, was one such scientist. According to The Guardian, Jinshou, who took part in the investigations into the source of SARS in 2003, said: “We later published many papers and popular science articles, urging everyone to stop eating wild animals and not to have too close contact with wild animals. Only the health of wild animals and the health of ecosystems can [secure] human health.

Reports of the conditions for the animals in these wildlife markets makes grim reading.

Yet disease threats to people come not only from poor treatment of wildlife; the way we keep animals on industrial farms also has a big bearing. 

Chickens at a Chinese meat market

Strong Parallels

I cannot but help see a strong parallel here with other viruses such as Swine Flu and highly pathogenic strains of Avian Influenza, which stem from our treatment of farm animals. 

Both these diseases have been devastating; both likely emanate in large part from keeping living, breathing, sentient creatures in the most unnatural conditions – caged, crammed and confined on industrial farms. Conditions that provide the perfect breeding ground for novel and more deadly strains of disease.

I remember the eerie sense of gloom on the streets of La Gloria in Mexico, known as ground zero for Swine Flu, previously a cheerful place where children played volleyball on dusty roads and streets decorated with bunting. Those streets lay just five miles from one of the biggest concentrations of pig farms in the world and in 2009, became the epicentre of one of the biggest-ever health scares linked to factory farming.

Swine Flu was a warning to the world; it spread far more quickly than anyone anticipated: within a week, ten countries were affected; within months, 180 countries had been hit. Within a year, according to the World Health Organisation, the virus was linked to over 18,000 deaths worldwide.

Like Russian Roulette

What Swine Flu taught us over a decade ago was that treating animals as mere commodities – be they domesticated or wild – means playing Russian Roulette with people’s health.

Clearly and thankfully, the latest coronavirus outbreak is not on this scale. I sincerely hope that authorities are successful in their attempts to get ahead of it and stop its devastating effect on the people of China. I cannot welcome enough the swift action by China government to stop the illegal wildlife trade and I encourage this to be permanent.

Piglets playing in the sunshine | Credit: Compassion in World Farming

One Health

To me, it seems clear that a key component of reducing the risk of devastating diseases in the future is to reconnect with our humanity for animals. To ensure that the sentience of animals – their ability to feel pain, to suffer, and to experience a sense of joy if we let them – whether wild or farmed, lies at the heart of future disease control strategies. One health, one welfare. Safeguarding the health and wellbeing of people requires us to protect the welfare of animals too.

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