COVID-19 & Animals: Cutting Through The Noise
When a cluster of pneumonia-like cases was documented in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019, the word “coronavirus” was one that most people who aren’t medical professionals hadn’t heard before. Less than five months later, the world is in the midst of a rapidly spreading pandemic. It seems like all anyone is talking about is COVID-19, and the myriad issues that have sprung from it. Scroll through a news feed or check out your favorite news site, and you’ll see articles about death rates, viral spread statistics, unemployment numbers, economic fallout, political responses, and yes, even articles about the virus’s animal connection. The sheer volume — both in terms of numbers and loudness — of this coverage can make the facts difficult to parse.
Faunalytics is now, and has always been, a data-focused organization, and we believe that at times like this it’s even more important to practice critical thinking and analysis. In this blog post, we’ll look at some myths and facts surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and discuss what role we as advocates can play in cutting through the noise — for ourselves, for our advocacy audience, and for our constituents, the animals.
Myths, Facts, and Conspiracies
In a social media environment that places verified sources up against memes, chaotic word of mouth, and conspiracy theories, we’ve come to expect the proliferation of falsehoods and “fake news.” This is especially true as many people operate within invisible filter bubbles that limit their exposure to alternative opinions, as well as verifiable facts.
During a time of pandemic, however, misinformation could be deadly.
What we know about the virus so far is limited, and we’re likely to learn much more over time as the world’s scientific resources are focused on the matter. However, we do know that the latest and most reliable scientific evidence indicates that the virus likely originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Wet markets sell both live and dead animals from wild and farmed sources. They bring humans and animals into close proximity, providing a way for viruses to jump from species to species, as has also been observed in previous outbreaks.
In reaction to the spreading pandemic, Faunalytics connected with animal advocacy organizations and stakeholders to formulate a poll that would help us better understand the general public’s level of knowledge about COVID-19, as well as their thoughts on how it relates to animals. We were happy to uncover some good news: After reading a paragraph outlining the link between animal agriculture and the outbreak, the majority of respondents found the explanation to be convincing (52%) and logical (57%). We also found that there was moderate support for legislation that would protect both animals and human health: Substantial proportions (42 to 43%) of respondents supported restrictions on agriculture and trade to prevent future outbreaks of disease.
Unfortunately, our study revealed that large swaths of the general public are misinformed — perhaps dangerously so — about COVID-19: Without additional cues, only 16% of survey respondents mentioned the wet market conditions that allowed the virus to jump from species to species. What’s more, a substantial proportion were resistant to being educated about the topic. After reading the aforementioned factual paragraph explaining the link, strong proportions found it to be annoying (25.5%), offensive (19.5%), or misleading (32.4%).
It would be tempting to exclude animal advocates from these dynamics, but it’s important to recognize that being misinformed and spreading misinformation can be just as much of a problem in animal advocacy circles as it is in the world at large. A perfect example of this is the proliferation of stories about animals returning to various habitats as human activity slowed and halted due to the pandemic. While heartwarming, many (but not all) of these viral posts were fake, the product of clever photoshopping, and spread thanks to wishful thinking. In other corners of social media — which we won’t link to here to prevent giving them further exposure — animal rights and vegan advocates are falsely claiming that vegans may be immune to the virus, among other troubling ideas and conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins, treatments, and more.
A source isn’t more trustworthy simply because it’s vegan, or tells us good news that we really want to believe is true. Indeed, if we take ourselves and our movement seriously, we should be especially critical of “our own” sources, and hold each other to account for spreading falsehoods and misinformation. Each piece of false information or overreaching claim has the potential to damage the credibility of the whole movement, and to hinder further advocacy.
The Spectre Of Racism
Closely connected to the fog of information we find ourselves in is the knee-jerk tendency towards racism that has resulted from a situation which has so quickly become racialized. This is perhaps unsurprising, as white privilege dominates North America, Europe, and so many other corners of the globe through social and cultural colonization. As with many other sectors, the animal advocacy movement has a lot of work to do in terms of antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion; groups like Encompass are doing crucial work in helping to educate and inform the movement to that end.
With that in mind, how can advocates seize upon what could be a powerful moment for advocacy — a moment that could change the trajectory for issues like the wildlife trade, and even factory farming — while not placing the blame on particular cultures or ethnic groups?
First and foremost we need to recognize, with absolute certainty, that Asian people around the world are facing hostility and backlash as the perceived source of the pandemic. The list of incidents is long, and gut-wrenching. If we plan on doing advocacy that specifically looks to target something like wet markets — a cultural practice not limited to China or Asia more broadly — we need to be aware that we run the risk of further demonizing those who are already actively being demonized.
Many groups and individuals are already making small gestures in this direction: some are including language in their statements that clarifies that their advocacy is not meant to demonize Chinese people, and other groups are trying to shift the discourse away from wet markets towards animal agriculture in general, and how it contributes to pandemics. Though our poll revealed that a good number of people may be hostile to this type of broad advocacy message, it does help mitigate racist framing of the issue.
These are good first steps, but we need to be active and do more. There are no easy answers to the problem; instead, it will require consistent care and vigilance from animal advocates. Now would be an ideal time to connect with animal advocates in China and Asia more broadly, to understand how they are framing their advocacy and how we can support their efforts, rather than imposing our advocacy from the top down (or from West to East).
The Impact On Animals
As with most other impacts, COVID-19’s ultimate impact on animals is still a matter of speculation and debate. Again, this is an area where question marks abound, and where wild opinions proliferate at a breakneck pace.
We do have some early indications that are data-backed. A Neilsen poll in mid-March revealed that sales of fresh plant-based meat alternatives were up 280%. However, sales of animal meat have also surged during a similar time frame, indicating that both rises may be the result of panic-buying and hoarding rather than more thoughtful consumption. In China, self-reported consumption of fresh meat dropped in response to the pandemic, but the news there was not all good: disruptions in feed supply due to COVID-19 resulted in the culling of millions of chickens. Some are speculating that a global recession or depression may result in much greater demand for chickens, who produce meat that is generally cheaper for consumers. While that is once again drifting back into the realm of speculation and prediction, there is good reason and previous data to go on.
Meanwhile in the U.S., meat-processing plants, already home to some of the worst abuses of both animals and workers, have begun to be impacted by the virus. It’s worth noting here that there is — as of press time — no evidence the virus can be transmitted through food, whether raw or cooked, as the virus is thought to have jumped from a live animal to humans.
For companion animals, the pandemic has already “redefined” animal sheltering practices and strategies. Shelters have moved quickly to meet a rising demand for animal fostering, and indeed, some have noted this as a silver lining to COVID-19’s rather dark cloud. What’s more, groups have put together comprehensive FAQs to help companion animal guardians understand how to be the best they can be for the animals in their care during this trying time.
For wild animals, the future remains uncertain. China moved somewhat quickly to ban the sale and consumption of wild animals, but with various loopholes and without a clear strategy for enforcement, the ban could be seen as largely symbolic. On a global scale, the pandemic has focused a lot of animal advocacy attention and effort on wet markets and the wildlife trade more broadly. It’s still too soon to say what the impacts of those efforts might be.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Perhaps one of the most defining features of the COVID-19 pandemic is the uncertainty it has injected into virtually every aspect of our lives: we don’t know exactly when social distancing restrictions will be eased, we don’t know when businesses will be allowed to re-open, we don’t know when vaccines or antibody tests will be widely available. The question marks are numerous. What we do know is that it will probably be a long time until things go “back to normal,” and indeed, “normal” may look very different than it did before.
Wherever we go from here, we must move forward with humility for what we don’t know, and remain firm in our convictions to act based on evidence. As animal advocates, we hope you’ll join Faunalytics in a commitment to move forward armed with the best possible information and data to make informed decisions with maximum impact and reach in mind. The COVID-19 pandemic, in its own way, holds potential for animal advocacy; that is all the more reason to redouble our efforts to be factual, and maintain our strategic composure.