The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing many things about our species: our vulnerability to disease is certainly a big one. That we can avoid, or at least lessen, the chance of such viruses spreading among humans is what interests me, but also what we can learn from this moment.
We are suffering greatly as a planet from a virus that crosses the species barrier. That pathogens spread to humans is not new. That they will likely continue to infect humans and at an increasing rate is. What might messy ethics say about this?
Wuhan’s wet market – where wild animals are sold for meat – is said to be the originator of COVID-19, perhaps through infected blood of a wild animal. SARS also came about through similar connections to wild animals. And Ebola in West Africa likely came about by humans eating an infected chimpanzee. Other viruses like HIV/AIDS and MERS also grew out of our proximity to wild animals.
But there seems more to all this than human exploitation of wild animals. In a recent article in the Guardian “Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?” Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL suggests these diseases are brought about increasingly through human destruction of the wild: “these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour. The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanization, and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.”
It’s not so much that natural ecosystems are a threat to us; it’s more that human actions that degrade habitats are increasingly putting wildlife under stress. It’s when we interfere with natural systems, when we erode biodiversity, “we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us,” says Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, New York in the same article.
A liberationist agenda calls for us to rethink our current exploitation of wild animals for food, research, entertainment, medicine and certainly for trophies. Moreover, it calls us to check our actions that encroach on the habitats of other animals. A further conversation should happen where we learn why some people need to depend on the exploitation of wild animals or the logging of rain forests in the first place. Likely, we’ll see how our life styles are a part of this mess.
Perhaps, with our current slowing down, purchasing less, a new norm of living simpler lives will kick in. Perhaps, our newly-recognized vulnerability to disease will awaken our compassion for those subjects – and that includes the wild animals with whom we should be sharing this planet – who suffer even more in other parts of the world.