Rethinking Human and Animal Rights in the Wake of Coronavirus

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We understand that many people are fearful and anxious about the coronavirus pandemic. Seen through a different lens, though, understanding the roots of the pandemic and the range of responses to outbreaks around the world could also offer a chance to dramatically shift how we treat the most vulnerable people and animals in society.

As many people now realize, the likely source of the novel coronavirus was animal markets in China, where the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic also emerged. In these markets, animals are kept in small cages, piled on top of one another, and killed on site. The practice is not unique to China. Nor is the practice of confining mammals, birds, and other animals for food production. In the United States, almost ten billion animals are killed every year after being confined in factory farms. In 2009, the H1N1 virus (the so-called “swine flu”) most probably emerged as a result of pig confinement in the United States and Mexico. Factory farms are also responsible for gross environmental injustices in neighboring communities, including through air, water, and soil pollution.

Thus far absent in our frantic response to the coronavirus pandemic are serious attention to the biological link between rights and health, and the indisputable connection between the welfare of people, animals, and the planet. We should not miss this chance to look more deeply at the roots of “symptoms” such as the coronavirus, avian influenza, and swine flu, in order to abate further disease and suffering.

The response to the pandemic has also offered other lessons. For the first time in years, some cities are committing to providing homes for people experiencing homelessness, and authorities are reducing the size of prisons after decades of mass incarceration. Additionally, there are calls for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release immigrants currently kept in detention centers. Healthcare professionals and policymakers have also advanced the conversation around healthcare as a human right.

Now is the time for national governments, state and local health departments, and international organizations such as the World Health Organization to fully embrace the importance of rights in their mission—for people and animals. That is what we are fighting for at Phoenix Zones Initiative. And we believe we have reason to be optimistic. China recently shut down the farming of wildlife, and closer to home, in 2019, U.S. Senator Cory Booker unveiled legislation that would place a moratorium on large factory farms that confine animals.

These are important first steps, and we will keep working toward similar changes. Without attention to the connection between human and animal rights, health, and wellbeing, one global crisis will continue to follow another.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani at Unsplash.