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What we eat, and the next pandemic

/ 04:20 AM March 29, 2020

Seeing the current lockdown across the Philippines makes me want to pull my hair out. Not just because it’s disruptive, but also because the signs that an outbreak like COVID-19 would happen have been so clear. Seventeen years ago, when SARS first made headlines, I locked myself in a cage in Hong Kong to illustrate the way our taste for animal flesh contributes to animal-borne diseases. That same year, I wore a hazmat suit to the Asean+3 Summit in Bali, where officials were discussing ways to prevent killer diseases. Manila has seen its fair share of my protests with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over the years; the latest one was outside the Department of Health just a few weeks ago. I explained that the most effective way to stop the spread of animal-borne viruses like the ones that cause SARS, avian flu, and swine flu is to stop eating animals. Later, I also dressed as a chicken and demonstrated at a KFC branch in Bangkok during a deadly bird flu outbreak. All in all, I’ve spent more than two decades warning people that it’s unhealthy—and downright dangerous—to raise animals for food.

Seeing people get sick and die from the latest coronavirus has only strengthened my resolve to persuade everyone to stop eating animals. We need to learn from past pandemics and go vegan, before wearing face masks becomes as commonplace as wearing clothes.

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Meat markets, factory farms, and slaughterhouses provide the perfect breeding ground for coronaviruses and other potentially devastating pathogens. The high demand for animal-based foods means that animals must be mass-produced in crowded, feces-ridden farms and slaughtered on killing floors that are contaminated with blood, vomit, and other bodily fluids. Pathogens flourish in such conditions. And when an outbreak does occur, the animals, which have already suffered so much, are slaughtered en masse in horrific ways. I know. I was in Manila when countless pigs were killed because of a swine flu outbreak.

Some scientists say that COVID-19 started in a Chinese “wet market” that sold seafood, live poultry, and exotic animals for human consumption. Others suspect that the virus may have been spread by pangolins, scaly anteaters that are often poached and used in traditional Chinese medicine or eaten in China and Vietnam. Whatever its exact origin, COVID-19 most likely started in animals.

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According to the United Nations, 70 percent of new human diseases originate in animals, and most of those are directly linked to animals used for food. Most scientists believe that every flu virus originated in birds, as birds are known to carry every single one of the 144 varieties of influenza virus.

It’s not unusual for animal-borne pathogens to mutate and sicken humans. While precautions such as suspending travel, quarantining at-risk individuals, and practicing good hygiene may help stop the spread of COVID-19 and other deadly diseases, we need to take one more significant step to prevent future epidemics of animal-borne diseases in the first place: Stop raising animals for food.

It’s bad enough that the consumption of meat and other animal-based foods contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and that harmful bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli, found in the intestines and feces of warm-blooded animals often lead to food-poisoning outbreaks. Do we really want to add potentially deadly animal-borne viruses to the mix?

Animal-borne viruses won’t just magically go away. The easiest way to help prevent full-blown epidemics is to avoid meat and other animal-derived foods like the plague.

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Jason Baker is the senior vice president of international campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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