It is no secret that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease but do we really know what this means for our health, the health of the animals, and the wellbeing of the workers who have to work with animals in relatively unhygienic conditions?
According to articles in global media, the principal driver of zoonotic diseases is industrial animal agriculture. Moreover, with the human population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, demand for livestock products is predicted to double, which will result in increased greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming.
These global statistics have been around for more than two decades, yet we have failed to have an honest public discussion on how to produce our food. As the demand for meat is growing exponentially across the world including in India –largely considered a vegetarian nation– the detrimental impact of inconsiderate animal agriculture is now evident. In 2013, the consumption of meat in Indian was about 5.6 kg per capita (Indian Council of Food and Agriculture). Philanthropists, not-for-profit organisations, and activists have made a clarion call to reduce the consumption of meat by 50% to lessen its rapidly increasing carbon footprint on earth.
It is evident that unhygienic breeding conditions of animals have contributed immensely towards the spreading of Covid-19 claiming several thousands of lives. Yet, the well-being of the people in the supply chain of animal agriculture and of the poor workers in facilities where animals are bred and sheltered has been ignored for the longest time.
Three international major meat producers in the US — Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods — have not only failed to provide the requisite gears to all their workers but also forced them to continue working in crowded plants even while sick, turning the facilities into infection hotspots. According to US media reports, there have been coronavirus outbreaks in more than 30 plants run by these companies and others have impacted no less than 3,300 workers and killed at least 17. The story here on home ground is not very promising either. In April, a Visakhapatnam meat-shop owner tested positive for coronavirus. His samples were collected on April 2 and he continued to work at the store. Only when his samples tested positive, officials accompanied by the police took him and 12 of his contacts to the hospital. The least we recommend is to keep slaughterhouses and meat shops shut until the pandemic is behind us.
Animal agriculture is not only threatening the very existence of humans but is also doing a great disservice to the environment. It is time for the world to bring down consumption of meat while upgrading working conditions of poor workers who come in contact with animals directly and are exposed to the dangers of contracting diseases from them. Countries must also adopt steps for sustainable animal agriculture that can include proper nutrition for the animals, maintenance of hygienic conditions in slaughterhouses and breeding grounds, avoiding the over-crowding of animals in space, lesser use of supplements and artificial boosters to boost growth in animals and raising regionally appropriate animals.
Governments worldwide are developing strategies to raise the bar in the field of animal agriculture and public health but there is still a long way to go. Significant work has been undertaken by countries in the space of public health to safeguard the interest of poor workers such as those in animal agriculture but India is miles away from its goals. Almost 70% of the Indian population are dependent on private sector for their health needs and end up paying one of the highest out-of-pocket costs for health services, which drives them into poverty and debt.
With the widespread pandemic looming over the lives of poor workers, the onus is on governments to take a note of the situation and improve the delivery of public health while enhancing working conditions of people involved in animal agriculture.
(The writer is the Executive Director of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), India’s apex animal protection organization.)