President Donald Trump issued an executive order in late April requiring all meat processing plants in the U.S. to remain open, despite reports of coronavirus infections and related deaths being prevalent at a number of the plants.
Since that order was issued, the number of COVID-19 cases that have been identified at meat plants across the country has likely tripled, according to estimates from a nonprofit watchdog group.
At the time of Trump’s executive order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had identified around 5,000 employees across 20 meat processing plants who had contracted COVID-19, and 17 workers at those plants who had died from the disease. In spite of concerns about the disease spreading at these and other locations, the president issued his order, utilizing the Defense Production Act to classify processing plants as essential infrastructure.
The executive order prevented local governments and health officials from enforcing plant closures in the event of an outbreak and it’s now apparent that the disease has indeed spread at these meatpacking locations since the order.
More than 100 plants across the country have seen a high number of cases of COVID-19. The Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit journalism watchdog group dedicated to food and agricultural issues, estimated in a report published last week that 17,000 workers may have now contracted the disease, with at least 66 COVID-related deaths recorded among employees at meat processing plants.
In light of this, other organizations are demanding the federal government take a more proactive approach toward limiting the spread of COVID-19. Citing the large numbers of workers at meat processing plants contracting coronavirus, the Center for Food Safety produced a petition in which it demanded the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issue new emergency standards to protect employees’ health.
“Protecting workers in meatpacking plants is important not just for the workers, but also for our food safety,” the organization wrote in its letter. “Unprotected and sick workers are more likely to make mistakes, making it more likely that tainted meat gets onto store shelves. The last thing we need during this pandemic is a major foodborne illness outbreak.”
Colder temperatures in the plants may also be helping the virus linger longer on surfaces or in air particles, and ventilation systems may be spreading coronavirus throughout the buildings.
Among the U.S. population in general, it’s feared that coronavirus will likely continue to spread even more than it already has, as several states begin transitioning away from stay-at-home orders that were previously issued.
This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.
In late April, residents of Nanoose Bay on southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, gathered on the shoreline of a local park to observe a juvenile gray whale. For several days, they watched and waited, and were occasionally rewarded for their patience when mist erupted from the ocean surface like compressed air exploding from a giant barrel. The whale would take a deep breath, arch its barnacled back, and dive out of sight.
The sightings were brief, but memorable — not just because they happened to them, but because they didn’t happen to anyone else. On a normal day, the gray whale would have been shadowed by commercial whale watching boats. COVID-19 has changed all that.
The pandemic has constrained vessel traffic around the world, probably to the benefit of whales. Ship strikes can kill or injure, while underwater engine noise and a vessel’s physical presence can disrupt whales’ ability to feed, rest, socialize, navigate, and communicate. “Generally, less noise resulting from a reduction in all manner of vessel traffic right now is probably not a bad thing for the whales,” says John Ford, a whale researcher emeritus with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
“Generally, less noise resulting from a reduction in all manner of vessel traffic right now is probably not a bad thing for the whales.”
Commercial whale watching is not immune to COVID-19. The whale watching fleet from British Columbia and Washington state totaled about 138 vessels in 2019, according to Soundwatch, a program of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington, which monitors vessel compliance in the San Juan Islands. That represents more than 500,000 customers annually.
But the pandemic has left the fleet docked.
In April, the Canadian government announced that all passenger vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers are prohibited from engaging in nonessential activities, including whale watching, until at least June 30.
Since then, the industry has conducted talks with Transport Canada aimed at getting the fleet back on the water, with the potential for British Columbia, perhaps through the Ministry of Health, deciding when to green-light commercial whale watching. The industry is putting together a blueprint for how that might happen, including staff training, frequent sterilization of vessels, and the wearing of face masks.
Meanwhile, whales in the Salish Sea are enjoying a rare respite from tourists and repeated boat traffic. That includes endangered southern resident killer whales, whose numbers have dropped from 98 in 1995 to an estimated 72 individuals.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association, representing Canadian and American companies in the Salish Sea, says the downside to COVID-19 extends beyond their lost revenues.
Every day the fleet is idled due to the pandemic, scientists cannot benefit from a GPS-based app developed by the industry in 2019 that provides real-time information on when and where whales are sighted. “That cannot be replicated by science, even on a good day,” says association spokesman Kelley Balcomb-Bartok.
Brad Hanson, a researcher with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is among more than 20 scientists who have received permission to access the app’s data for specific study periods. “It is much more efficient,” he says. “I don’t like to go out and spend a lot of time searching for whales.” Such data can also help to track a sick whale or identify larger trends in whale numbers and species in the Salish Sea.
Mark Malleson has a foot in both camps: he is a veteran captain for Prince of Whales in Victoria, and does contract work for DFO and the Center for Whale Research in Washington State, mainly taking identification photos of killer whales. He documented the first fin whale in the Juan de Fuca Strait in 2005. “The whale watching industry is pretty unique in this part of the world,” he says. “We cover so much area and … have so many eyes out there.”
“Absolutely, there is going to be less data. Whether or not the absence of those data would compromise our efforts or understanding … long-term, I’m not sure.”
Individual whale watching companies also support conservation organizations through a variety of initiatives, including donating one percent or more of ticket sales or a fixed donation such as $2 per ticket, and offering free seats or free charters of vessels for education, fundraising, or research purposes.
One major beneficiary is the Center for Whale Research, founded by Balcomb-Bartok’s father, Ken Balcomb. The center receives up to $30,000 per year from whale watching companies, evidence of the intertwining of whale commerce and whale conservation. On the Canadian side of the border, the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation reports that whale watching companies contributed about CAN $105,000 to the organization in donations and gifts in kind in 2019.
All of which offsets — but does not eliminate — the industry’s impact on whales.
“We need to embrace what’s best for the southern residents while still having a viable economy,” asserts Balcomb-Bartok. “I can’t say we are benign. It is a factor. Let’s find the best balance.”
The absence of data from the whale watching fleet comes at a time when whale researchers also struggle to get onto the water due to the pandemic.
Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, head of DFO’s cetacean research program on the west coast, says research by government organizations such as his own and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has largely ground to a halt. Physical distancing can be problematic for boat crews, while going for fuel and handling study equipment carries the risk of contamination. Fieldwork by small organizations may still continue, he says, including using drones to document whales’ physical condition. Hydrophones are also collecting data on underwater sound levels resulting from reduced vessel traffic.
As for the whale watching industry’s contribution, he says: “Absolutely, there is going to be less data. Whether or not the absence of those data would compromise our efforts or understanding … long-term, I’m not sure.”
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Ultimately, all manner of vessels, whether they contribute to research or not, can be disruptive to whales, Doniol-Valcroze concludes.
“Everybody who is honest knows that when you’re out there — whether you are a researcher or whale watcher or anything else — you’re having an impact on these animals. It all comes down to whether it’s worth the impact or not.”
It makes you wonder what the whales would say. A question left to humans to debate.
Larry Pynn is a veteran environmental journalist who has received some 30 awards for his newspaper and magazine writing, including eight Jack Webster Awards. Email High Country Newsat firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.
Our food system is breaking due to COVID-19 closures, but this collapse has been looming for decades.
We were warned years ago that another deadly pandemic was inevitable—but we did not listen. Instead, humans have continued prioritizing low food prices and convenience over public safety and pandemic prevention.
Though there are many contributors to the current collapse—including a growing global population and deep-rooted cultural norms—big meat and dairy companies, farmers, producers, and consumers are all to blame for the system’s demise. Demand for animal protein and deep-seated industrialization of animal farming have created the perfect breeding grounds for disease.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many slaughterhouses across North America have been shut down or are working at limited capacity because of large outbreaks among farm and slaughterhouse workers. The closing of restaurants, schools, and hotels—responsible for significant amounts of meat and dairy consumption—has contributed to a drop in demand for animal products.
As a result, there are now major backlogs of animals on farms. Eggs are being crushed, milk is being dumped, and our animal protein production system appears to be crumbling before our eyes—a reality that demonstrates the dire need for reform within our animal-dependent food system.
“The system is breaking up,” says Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy in the Faculties of Management and Agriculture at Dalhousie University, in Canada. What we see happening today, he says, “is really showing the limits of our system,” and the cost “are the lives of animals that were produced for no reason.”
Meat Production Is Showing No Signs of Slowing Down
Though COVID-19 has threatened food supply chains, meat production in 2021 is forecast to rise nearly 4 percent higher than in 2020 due to recovery in all major types of meat.
Broiler Chickens: Over 178 million broiler chickens are killed for food each day around the world. In the U.S., an estimated 99.9 percent of broiler chickens live within the confines of factory farms. Chicken production is expected to rise by 3 percent in 2021 to 45 billion pounds.
From an economic perspective, “the problem remains in processing,” Charlebois explains. Our food system was transformed over a century ago from local abattoirs to massive corporate slaughter plants. A centralized food system, he adds, “makes the entire supply chain vulnerable.”
Adam Clark Estes—Deputy Editor of Recode at Vox—explains that “Meatpacking remains consolidated to a few dozen Midwestern processing plants, many of which are owned by a handful of huge corporations, like JBS and Smithfield.” That’s why, he says, “when a few of these processors get shut down, due to a pandemic or something else, the country’s entire meat supply suffers.”
For many, these unexpected positives have brought a new understanding about the relationship between the environment and our health.
So could human health and planetary health be more closely linked than we think? We’ve seen how problems like deforestation and rising temperatures have increased the risk of extinction for all kinds of species. But, as part of the global ecosystem, humans aren’t immune from the effects of climate change either.
BUT JUST HOW IS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT MAKING US SICK?
Nine out of ten people in the world breathe polluted air with an estimated 7 million dying every year from conditions associated with exposure to microscopic particulates. As a result of burning unclean fuels like coal, diesel, kerosene, and even biofuel and trash, these very small pollutants find their way into our lungs. Alongside methane emissions from industrial agriculture and oil and gas production, human actions are making the air we breathe unclean. Air pollution can lead to a variety of health problems like lung cancer, strokes and heart disease.
Air pollution can lead to a variety of health problems like lung cancer, strokes and heart disease.
More than 90 per cent of deaths related to air pollution occur in low and middle income countries – but high income countries are not immune. A study in 2019 found that air pollution causes an extra 800,000 deaths a year in Europe. “To put this into perspective, this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, which the World Health Organization estimates was responsible for an extra 7.2 million deaths in 2015,” co-author of the study, Professor Thomas Münzel told EurekAlert!.
By changing the nature of vital habitats through human actions like agriculture and industry, the ‘buffer zones’ which separate us from wildlife have been seriously reduced. A statement by experts from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) explains that a system which prizes economic growth over the protection of natural resources has created a “perfect storm” for diseases to spread from wildlife to humans.
That means taking care of the environment through stronger and more stringently enforced regulations will be essential post-pandemic, say the experts.
A wider variety of species helps soil to remain productive for longer and provides a resource for discovering new plants, livestock and marine species that can be harvested for food.
But food security isn’t just about not having enough. Where 800 million people are facing the risk of food shortages, 2.1 billion are obese or overweight. Most of our energy needs are being met by just three crops; rice, wheat and maize. Much of this ends up as highly processed items like bread or is turned into ingredients including sweeteners in confectionery. Unfortunately, our highly industrialised, intensive food production system makes nutritionally poor food cheap and easily available.
Destroying natural sources of medicine
Changes in habitat due to agriculture, climate change and overharvesting are eating away at environments rich in biodiversity. This is a problem because these areas are often where the next big medical breakthroughs are found, deriving from natural sources. In the US nearly 80 per cent of leading prescription drugs are based on natural sources and many of these are particularly important in the treatment of cancer.
With natural resources in rapid decline, we could be losing important medicinal species before we even discover them.
Millions of people worldwide also rely on traditional and non-formal sources of medicine collected from the natural environment for their healthcare. In some countries, these medicinal plants are an essential part of healthcare systems. Loss of species vital for these traditional remedies would reduce the treatment options available to billions.
“Currently there are 844 million people – one in nine of the world’s population – who do not have clean water close to home,” says Jonathan Farr, Water Aid’s Senior Policy Analyst, in response to the release of the United Nations World Water Development report. “Others face an unreliable supply of water because agriculture, industry or wealthier sections of society are able to take more than their fair share of water.”
The World Health Organisation has encouraged regular hand washing throughout the pandemic as a way of controlling the spread of the virus but, without access to basic handwashing facilities, millions of people are unable to follow this advice. In a survey of 42 countries, less than half the population had access to basic soap and water in their homes.
The covid-19 crisis has brought the global water crisis to the fore, highlighting the urgency of making sure that everyone has access to clean supply.
You can find some more of the ways environmentally damaging behaviour is putting global health at risk on the UNEP website.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL BAD NEWS, EXPERTS PREDICT A GREEN RECOVERY
Although irresponsible behaviour may be increasing our chances of getting sick, our recovery on the other side of the pandemic could provide an opportunity for systemic change.
Only by restoring a healthy balance between people and nature can we prevent future outbreaks and their impact on society
Patrick ten Brink
EU policy director for the European Environmental Bureau
The idea of a ‘green recovery’’ already has the support of a significant number of Europeans. 1.2 million people have joined an appeal for the EU to launch “the biggest green investment plan the world has ever seen”. The Green10 coalition, made up of the ten largest environmental organisations in Europe, has called for billions in investment for solutions like widespread use of renewable energy, restoration of natural habitats and the greening of agricultural practices. All of which will help to tackle the effects of climate change impacting global health.
“The new budget must reflect the need to save resources, cut pollution and fight climate breakdown,” says Patrick ten Brink, EU policy director for the European Environmental Bureau. “Only by restoring a healthy balance between people and nature can we prevent future outbreaks and their impact on society.”
Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and humans. Many are relatively harmless – causing no more than a common cold. Others result in diseases that are new and unfamiliar, like the COVID-19 pandemic, and before that, outbreaks of diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS (2002); Avian Influenza or bird flu (2004); H1N1 or Swine Flu (2009); Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS (2012); Ebola (2014– 2015); Zika virus (2015–2016); and West Nile virus (2019).
Almost a century’s worth of global trends confirm that coronaviruses are occurring more frequently. A 2016 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report flagged coronaviruses–or “zoonoses”–as an issue of global concern. On average, three new infectious diseases emerge in humans every year; and about three quarters of these are zoonotic.
What is causing the spike in these diseases? Here’s what decades of scientific research has to say:
Our evolving lifestyles have dramatically altered the land around us. We have cleared forests and other natural areas to create spaces for urban areas and settlements, agriculture and industries. In doing so, we have reduced overall space for wildlife and degraded natural buffers between humans and animals.
Climate change is also a driver of zoonoses. Greenhouse gas emissions–primarily the result of burning fossil fuels–cause changes in temperature and humidity, which directly affects the survival of microbes. Scheduled for release next month, a new rapid assessment by UNEP and ILRI on zoonotics suggests that epidemics will become more frequent as the climate continues to change.
Demand for dairy and meat products has led to the expansion of uniform cropland and intense livestock farming in rural areas and near cities. Livestock often serve as a bridge between wildlife and human infections, meaning pathogens may be passed from wild animals to livestock to humans.
Of particular concern are informal markets, where live, wild animals are kept and sold, often in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. Viruses and other pathogens may be easily spread among animals that are kept close together; or to the humans who handle, transport, sell, purchase or consume them, when sanitary and protective practices are not followed.
Pathogens are always changing to survive in different animals, humans and environments. With the increase of intensive farming and overuse of antimicrobial drugs in both animals and people, pathogens are becoming more resistant to the very medications that might have been effective in treating zoonotic disease.
What COVID-19 is teaching us
COVID-19 is a reminder that human health and the planet’s health are closely linked. There are about 8 million species of life on the Earth, of which humans are just one. These include an estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses, recognized as the type that may infect people, existing in mammals and water birds. Any one of these could be transferred to humans, if we don’t take preventative measures now.
The most fundamental way to protect ourselves from coronaviruses is to prevent destruction of nature, which drives the spread of diseases
Where ecosystems are healthy and biodiverse, they are resilient, adaptable and help to regulate diseases. Pathogens that are passed around among reservoirs in animals are more likely to reach dead–and effectively die off–where there is greater diversity.
Genetic diversity builds disease resistance among animal populations and decreases the chances of outbreaks of high-impact animal diseases, according to a 2017 IPBES report. Conversely, intensive livestock farming can produce genetic similarities within herds and flocks, reducing resilience and making them more susceptible to pathogens. This, by extension, exposes humans to a higher risk.
What UNEP is doing
As the world deals with the ongoing COVID-19 emergency and starts to recover from the impact of this global pandemic, UNEP is helping nations to build back better and increase resilience to future crises. UNEP supports countries in delivering stronger science-based policies that back a healthier planet and guide greener investments.
Did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually “change their minds” this week about the potential risk of Covid-19 coronavirus being spread by contaminated surfaces? Not really. Not even on the surface.
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Take a closer look at what the CDC has been saying specifically. Compare a previous version of a CDC web page (cited by the Fox News article accompanying the tweet above) with the current version. The exact wording may have evolved a bit. Nonetheless, in both versions, the CDC stated, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”
Yes, both versions did include the following: “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” However, this statement does not say that contaminated surfaces cannot spread the virus. This statement does not imply that you should not worry about contaminated surfaces. In fact, the latest version added the following kicker, “but we are still learning more ab
Just because something is not the “main way” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen or that you shouldn’t be concerned about it. It’s just an issue of what may be more frequent. For example, using a toilet in a stall may not be the “main way” that you take dumps, unless, of course, you have built such a stall in your house or apartment for some reason. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t be prepared to use a toilet in a stall. Not knowing what to do in a stall could lead to a messy situation.
Similarly, the CDC statements can simply mean that a majority of the Covid-19 coronavirus transmissions that have occurred so far have likely been via direct person-to-person contact. In most cases, direct person-to-person contact means that an infectious person coughs, sneezes, pants, sings, chants, curses, or otherwise breathes out virus-laden respiratory droplets, which then are inhaled by someone else. It is more a reflection of how contagious an infected person may be when you get too close to him or her. As I have written previously for Forbes, simply talking could expel fluid droplets that could hang in the air for over eight minutes. You may expel even more droplets whenever you use the “th” sound like when you say “shake that thang.” Imagine what could happen if these fluid droplets were carrying the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) .
Again, all of this does not mean that transmission cannot occur via contaminated surfaces. In fact, two scientific studies have shown that the virus can stay on surfaces for quite a while. In both studies, researchers applied the virus to various surfaces and then measured how the virus may degrade over time and how long the virus remained detectable. In the first study published in a research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the CDC, Princeton University, and the University of California, Los Angeles conducted the study. Vincent J. Munster, Ph.D. from NIAID was the corresponding author for the publication so in theory you could call this the Munster study. In the experiments, the measured half-life of the SARS-CoV-2 was approximately 1.1 to 1.2 hours on copper, 5.6 hours on stainless steel, and 6.8 hours on plastic. The half-life is the time that it takes for half of initial amount of virus to no longer be detectable.
Then there was the study published as a research letter in The Lancet Microbe and conducted by a team from the School of Public Health at The University of Hong Kong (Alex W.H. Chin, Julie T.S. Chu, Mahen R.A. Perera, Kenrie P.Y. Hui, Hui-Ling Yen, Michael C.W. Chan, Malik Peiris, and Leo L.M. Poon). Their experiments found the virus to be detectable on:
Paper for up to 30 minutes.
Tissue paper for up to 30 minutes.
Wood for up to a day.
Cloth for up to a day.
Glass for up to two days.
Bank notes for up to two days
Stainless steel for up to four days
Plastic for up to four days
The inner layer of a mask for up to four days
The outer layer of a mask for up to seven days
This would be good news if your living quarters and all of your possessions happen to be made out of tissue paper. It could be bad news if you wear stainless steel underwear. In general, viruses tend to survive longer on surfaces that are hard and impermeable than those with lots of pores.
Note how long the virus may remain on and inside a face mask. This is why you should treat a face mask like a reversed pair of underwear. Be very careful when handling it. Avoid touching your face with the outside of the mask.
Certainly, these studies have their limitations. Just because a virus is detectable does not necessarily mean that there’s enough virus around to cause an infection. Viruses can be like holes in your underwear: a few may be OK, but once you get past a certain level, it becomes a problem.
Also these studies showed what happened under specific sets of laboratory conditions. As they say in commercials for hair dyes, your actual results may vary. Plus, different environmental conditions such as the surrounding temperature, air motion, and sunlight exposure could affect the survival of the virus. Thus, the numbers provided are only approximations and not exact time limits. In other words, don’t set a timer to determine when exactly you can start smearing money on your face and making moaning sounds. (By the way, smearing money on your face is rarely a good idea.)
Nevertheless, the results from these experiments do show that the virus can remain on surfaces for not an insignificant amount of time, which is a roundabout way of saying that the virus can stay on surfaces long enough to be a source of transmission. In fact, these experiments suggested that the SARS-CoV2 can remain on surfaces significantly longer than can other respiratory viruses like the influenza virus.
It is a well-established fact that various respiratory viruses can be transmitted via contact with surfaces. If you somehow don’t trust the CDC, just look at websites from other countries like the Canadian government. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety website states that “influenza viruses can also be transmitted by indirect contact by touching a contaminated object or surface and then touching your own mouth, eyes or nose before washing your hands.” It also indicates that flu viruses on such surfaces can remain “infective for two hours and maybe up to eight hours.”
Transmission via surfaces is known as fomite transmission. The “fo” part of this word is pronounced “fo” as in “fo’ sure” or “fi fi fo fum.” The “mite” sounds like “might” as in “you might not want to wear a cape in public.” A fomite is any surface or inanimate object that can passively carry an infectious microbe such as door knobs, remote controls, towels, dishes, or your significant other while you end up having to wash the dishes.
So, scientific guidance about surfaces has not really changed. You should still be concerned about surfaces that may be contaminated with the virus. You should still try to disinfect potential fomites. Nothing in the CDC statements about surfaces suggests that businesses were closed for “no reason whatsoever.” When a business is fully open, it can be challenging not only to keep surfaces virus-free but also limit direct person-to-person contact. After all, just look at how “well” people are social distancing with the recent re-opening of locations:
You may have noticed, of late, a distinct change in the Trump White House pandemic strategy. Out are the pandemic briefings because somebody finally convinced Trump they were making him look bad; in are Trump economic advisers making implausible claims on the Sunday shows. Out are the government medical experts, the ones who kept making news by not entirely agreeing with Trump’s every bizarre new medical invention. (Take malaria medication! Drink bleach!) In is the newest White House press secretary putting on surly Fox & Friends-styled briefings declaring President Awesomedude to have done 12 brilliant things while nobody was looking, all wedged invisibly between the day’s angry tweets.
This leads to the inevitable question: Are the government’s pandemic experts even doing anything at this point, or has Trump’s government simply bailed outright on the premise that they will be doing even a single damn thing to get the pandemic under control?
That doesn’t mean Fauci hasn’t been at the White House or appeared as prop behind Trump. But when it comes to public briefings on the most urgent news of the day, such as the government’s recent promising vaccine results or the overall direction of the pandemic as states “reopen”—perhaps, say, weighing in on Alabama now beginning to see the same hospital room scarcity that quickly escalated to crisis levels in New York City, early in the pandemic—neither Fauci or any other government medical experts have been made available to weigh in.
There are at least two factors at work here. By far the lesser one, because everything is insane now, is that the entire White House task force is either self-isolating or should be after Vice President Mike Pence’s aide, Katie Miller, who frequented the media gatherings, tested positive for the virus and set off a minor White House tizzy.
Why is this probably the lesser reason? Well, look at them. Pence has been traveling the country, licking walls or whatever it is Trump’s vice president has officially been tasked with doing these days; you’re not seeing the team’s various economic-minded hangers-on making themselves scarce during this same period, nor do any of them need to given now-ample resources for conducting remote interviews and testimony.
Which brings us to the other factor: Trump doesn’t want to hear from the medical team, and so none of the rest of us are going to hear from them either if he and towel boy Pence have any say in it. One of the core reasons for Pence’s elevation to top pandemic manager was to curb public appearances by the medical experts to begin with. Pence already threatened to retaliate against a news network by ending all Fauci interviews once; preventing government officials from publicly speaking about things that upset Trump has become one of the White House’s most all-consuming tasks.
The extent to which government medical experts have fallen out of favor with Trump and Trump’s team of, well, idiots, has been obvious since the beginning of the month, and is in line with Trump’s apparent mental inability to process any information he did not himself invent. Trump and his team had even suggested that the medical-expert-including pandemic task force would be ceasing operations completely in favor of a new task force stuffed to the brim with only economic-minded “reopening”-pushers. Trump relented, apparently, upon learning that the original task force was still popular—but you probably couldn’t tell that from the team’s sudden bout of invisibility.
The main problem, of course, is that Donald Trump has decided that he wants the pandemic to be over for electoral reasons, and so the White House is now single-minded in their pursuit of that fiction regardless of each day’s new death tallies. Those in government who know better will be hidden as best the White House is able, so that the White House can better claim nobody knew this was coming as deaths mount despite entire buildings full of people warning that it was.
Azar and others who have proven themselves more astute at dodging follow-up questions on whether or not Americans should drink bleach or indulge in whatever other fantasy President Biff Ideasguy pipes up with in an effort to fill camera time are still being let out of their cages from time to time. But it appears the White House tolerance for actual pandemic expertise has now been exhausted.
Trump is bored now. He wants to reopen, he doesn’t particularly care what the consequences are—as with his constant pushing of malaria medication, his “ideas” consist primarily of all-or-nothing Hail Mary shots to end the crisis by magic, in the hopes that just one of them will stick—and he does not need America hearing from anyone who might confuse the public as to whether or not that’s a good idea.
It is of urgent importance and necessity — as we are all now of course doing — to stem the ravaging tide of COVID-19 transmissions and the unimaginable death toll witnessed both locally and globally that COVID-19 has caused. Part of this effort involves taking measures such as quarantining, restricting travel, self-isolating, social distancing, practising impeccable hand and face hygiene and funding emerging scientific and medical research to develop therapeutic treatments and vaccines.
With the exception of vaccines, these are mostly short-term measures (if they can be called that, as we do not know how long this pandemic will last), but among the most profound long-term measures we can take to improve our own and non-human animal lives and welfare is to stop consuming non-human animals as food.
While there are ethical reasons for not eating non-human animals and practising veganism (which will be dealt with in article two), the overwhelming health and environmental benefits a vegan diet can reap to prevent further coronavirus transmissions in the future is one of the simplest long-term measures anyone can take. Moreover, doing so would likely pave the way for better than the already weak non-human animal laws in Canada.
As is commonly known, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means it is a coronavirus that originated in non-human animals and eventually migrated to human animals. Bats are a common carrier of coronaviruses, for example, and pangolins, the most trafficked species in the world, also tend to act as intermediaries for coronavirus transmissions.
Although over 500 different coronavirus strains were discovered in the last 10 years, it is unclear to scientists, ecologists and epidemiologists where exactly COVID-19 emerged, but there appears to be a general consensus that sometime in November 2019, COVID-19 saw significant transmission from non-human animals to human animals in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China.
On Feb. 11, for various reasons owing to geographic, species and demographic neutrality and simplicity, the World Health Organization (WHO) labelled that particular strain of coronavirus “COVID-19.” In fact, in 2015, the WHO published a list of emerging diseases (mostly derived from non-human animals) that were deemed likely to cause epidemics; however, COVID-19 was not among them. I am not faulting the WHO for not including COVID-19 on that list; only pointing out that emerging diseases and their origins are generally known and monitored among the global human animal health community.
Nevertheless, what COVID-19 and some of the other viruses that were included on that list have in common is that they often originate in public and private food markets in which live or recently slaughtered wild non-human animals are purveyed. In fact, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggested that over 70 per cent of new human diseases in recent decades originated in non-human animals and has only been accelerated by human animals’ quest for more non-human animal sourced food.
The WHO, the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Public Health Agency of Canada historically have, for numerous years, issued similar warnings about potential pandemics based on the dietetic consumption of non-human animals.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal body responsible for regulating the safety of non-human animals and their byproducts for human animal consumption in Canada, has also authorized certain countries to import meat into Canada. CFIA writes on its website that during the COVID-19 pandemic it is “taking action to preserve the integrity of Canada’s food safety system, while safeguarding its animal and plant resource base.” It is not clear what this means.
In totality, CFIA’s greatest efforts are typically devoted to ensuring that non-human animals are fit for human animal consumption and the agency does little else to protect the daily lives and welfare of non-human animals themselves. In all fairness, however, it is not explicitly within CFIA’s mandate to do so.
Above all else, however, it is the demand for “meat” that fuels supply — locally and globally. Simply put, if the demand were to decrease or even disappear, an absence of supply would naturally follow. Surely then the possibility of future pandemics would decrease.
Not consuming foreign non-human animals, however, exists in the larger context of domestic non-human animal food consumption. Canada is one of the largest producers and exporters of dead cow meat (“beef” is a euphemism) in the world, for example. According to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, the body that represents Canadian “beef” producers, Canada produces approximately 1.3 million tonnes of dead cow meat annually and in 2018 exported $2.75 billion worth or 398,580 tonnes of dead cow meat, representing 38 per cent of domestic slaughter. The remaining 901,420 tonnes were consumed by Canadians.
If foot-and-mouth disease, the Walkerton E. coli outbreaks and even the H1N1 and SARS viruses are indications, given these numbers, the possibility of pathogen and virus transmission exists in domestic contexts despite whatever regulatory precautions CFIA might take.
As more information about COVID-19, the devastating effects it is having, and other infectious diseases and the possibility of future epidemics or pandemics emerge, it will be interesting to see if Canadians will either become vegan or at least demand improved laws respecting the treatment and importation of non-human animals into Canada. Doing so would likely pave the way for better than the already weak non-human animal laws in Canada, which I will explore in part two.
The meat industry prefers to work behind the closed doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses, but the pandemic is giving Canadians a rare glimpse into the dirty business of animal slaughter, and the unique and intense forms of suffering the industry unleashes on animals, workers, and sometimes even farmers.
By now it’s old news that Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks have all been at slaughterhouses (the industry prefers the term “processing plants”). In Alberta, over three times as many slaughter workers have fallen ill than have health-care workers. Nationwide, these killing factories are closing or running at reduced capacity, throwing a wrench in the meat supply chain.
The meat industry raises animals on a strict, just-in-time basis, and slaughter disruptions are most keenly felt in the pig and chicken meat industries because those animals have shorter lifespans and higher turnover. Slaughter-ready animals are immediately trucked to the abattoir to maximize farmer profits, and clear space for new, younger animals. Genetically manipulated to grow grotesquely fast, chickens reach slaughter size in only six to eight weeks. Pigs reach market weight of about 270 pounds in a mere six months.
Many farmers are now making a business decision to “depopulate”— a euphemistic term for killing off slaughter-ready animals whom they can’t slaughter for profit. At least 200,000 chickens have been killed on farms in Quebec, and reports suggest up to 90,000 pigs have met the same fate. There is no publicly available data, so actual numbers could be significantly higher.
In Minnesota, farmers are killing 3,000 pigs a day and running their bodies through a woodchipper. No public inspectors oversee on-farm killings, and industry-accepted methods include braining piglets by bashing in their heads in, shooting pigs, and gassing entire barns of chickens.
Some may wring their hands about food waste, but more importantly, these animals are individuals. As MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith pointed out at a recent Industry Committee meeting, “this is what happens when we treat sentient animals as commodities.”
Farmers are now claiming that shooting pigs and gassing chickens is affecting their mental health. Apparently even farmers — involved in the daily confinement and exploitation of animals, often in appalling conditions — don’t like to contemplate the fate that awaits animals once trucked away.
But what of the mental well-being of workers in slaughterhouses to whom we normally outsource the business of killing? What is it like to kill, disassemble bodies, and constantly try to disassociate from the horror of it?
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Slaughterhouse workers are disproportionately marginalized people from immigrant communities, temporary foreign workers, and other folks with few options. We shunt this dangerous, damaging work onto the vulnerable, and the mental toll it takes is evident in the higher rates of violence in slaughterhouse communities. Now, these workers are also dealing with the added risk of COVID-19 infection.
The secretive brutality of the meat industry is on display for all to see, and it’s more apparent than ever before that a post-pandemic food system must include a shift toward growing plants, and a move away from the slaughter-based food system that hurts animals, workers, and our food supply.
“When will we say ‘enough is enough’ and decide that eating animals is just not worth it?”
Alicia Silverstone quote:
“Killing animals is unethical and obsolete, and it’s killing us too. We need to take pandemics off the menu.”
An international campaign group best known for challenging the Pope and the President of the United States to go vegan for a month in return for $1 million to charity is donating $100,000 in vegan food and supplies across the nine countries where it operates, plus Ethiopia.
Million Dollar Vegan was established to raise awareness of how the rearing and consumption of animals affects the environment, both farmed and wild animals, and human health – including the global risks of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance. It is backed by many leading doctors and scientists.
Launched in the first week of May, and rolling out across ten countries throughout May and beyond, Million Dollar Vegan is working with Ammucare.org and Getmoksha.com in India to provide vegan ration for a month to 200 slum-dwelling families and street children in Krishna Nagar, Mohammadwadi in Pune. This will be an ongoing program for the month of May. They will also be partnering with other local organizations and restaurants to deliver food to those in need across Mexico, Brazil, Argentine, Ethiopia, the US, UK, Italy, France and Spain.
picture credit: Ammucare.org
Through its relief efforts, Million Dollar Vegan aims to actively support and care for those most in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, whilst at the same time raising awareness of how pandemics emerge and spread in order to try and prevent another, perhaps more devastating, outbreak in the future. In this, they are backed and guided by experts including Dr. Michael Greger (public health expert and author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching), Dr. Neal Barnard (President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), Dr. Peter Li (Associate Professor of East Asian Politics), Dr. Aysha Akhtar (neurologist and author of Animals and Public Health), Dr. T Colin Campbell (Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry, Cornell University), Dr. Ariel Kraselnik (cardiologist), and Professor Aaron Gross (University of San Diego, co-author of Eating Animals).
The campaign is also backed by many well-known names including Hollywood actress and activist Alicia Silverstone, American singer-songwriter Mýa, Brazilian TV-star Luisa Mell, Argentinian rapper Cacha, and Indian popstar Anushka Manchanda — as well as renowned public health experts, educators and scientists.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases come from animals. 
Says Dr. Kraselnik: “Flu pandemics will continue, if we insist on stacking animals up for our consumption.”
Says Dr Neal Barnard: “Getting animals off our collective plate would go a long way toward preventing future pandemics, and would improve our health and our environment at the same time.”
While scientists make the connection between pandemics and our treatment of animals, nutritionists and doctors are also sharing research that indicates eating plant-based foods may help strengthen and support our immune systems. One study found that within two weeks of a fruit- and veggie-deficient diet, immune function plummeted. 
Says Dr. Campbell, of the Centre for Nutritional Studies: “A Whole-Food Plant-Based (WFPB) diet can prevent, perhaps even reverse, the chronic degenerative diseases which make older individuals more susceptible to COVID-19 while simultaneously increasing immunity by inactivating the COVID-19 itself.”
Million Dollar Vegan says there has never been a more important time for people to re-evaluate their relationship with animals, to make the switch to a plant-based diet, and to join their global campaign to #TakePandemicsOffTheMenu.
Says Naomi Hallum, Director of Million Dollar Vegan: “The coronavirus pandemic – like many others before it – is creating tragedies for families all over the world. None of us want this to happen ever again but to prevent future outbreaks, there are some difficult lessons we must learn. If we continue to stress wild animals by decimating their habitats and capture and cage them in markets – and if we continue to mass produce domesticated animals inside squalid factory farms and transport them long distances – there will be no avoiding a future pandemic.
picture credit: TravelandLeisure.com
“COVID-19 is a stark reminder that all life on Earth is connected and that if we wish to preserve our own lives, we must also strive to preserve the lives of others.”
Additional information on historic zoonoses
Our long history of exploiting animals for their meat, milk, eggs and skins means there is also a long history of serious illness and widespread deaths in people: Tuberculosis is thought to have been acquired from the domestication of goats; whooping cough from domesticated pigs; typhoid from domesticating chickens; leprosy from water buffalo; and the cold virus from cows or horses. 
The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50-100 million people and originated in birds.  More recently, the SARS virus – thought to have originated from another live animal market  – spread to over 8,000 people worldwide and cost the global economy an estimated $40 billion.  Then came H1N1 “swine flu” – believed to have originated in pigs – which infected around 60.8 million people.  This was followed by MERS, another deadly coronavirus, which emerged straight out of an industrializing camel sector in the Middle East.  And then in 2013, the H7N9 “bird flu” emerged from poultry, sickening more than 1,500 people and killing roughly 40 percent of them. 
Scientists agree that about 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are of animal origin.