SUMMARY BY: MIAN OSUMI | ORIGINAL STUDY BY: SELLARS L., BERNOTAS, K., & SEBO, J. (2021) | PUBLISHED: FEBRUARY 28, 2022
The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the need for a global health shift that values animal health, welfare, and rights.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to globalization, but it also tells a story of our harmful treatment of animals. Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve learned about the risks of using and killing animals in such high numbers, as both the 2003 SARS epidemic and 2009 H1N1 pandemic originated in animal use. This leads some scholars to wonder – is it time to change our approach to global health to include other animals?
Currently, the closest mainstream health framework we have to this concept is “One Health,” which sees human, animal, and environmental health as interlinked. Within this framework, we can explore how common health threats affect both humans and animals at the same time. For example, the wildlife trade causes immense suffering for the wild animals involved while also risking the spread of zoonotic illnesses. In another example, the distressing conditions on factory farms can result in antibiotic overuse, which in turn contributes to antibiotic resistance among humans.
Unfortunately, the One Health framework is also limited. While it views human and animal health together, it treats animal health as secondary to humans. This was evident in the highly-publicized “cullings” that took place during the COVID-19 outbreak, including the 17 million minks who were slaughtered on farms in Denmark to prevent the disease from spreading. Many animals were also harmed to protect businesses, such as the mass killings that took place during the 2020 slaughterhouse shutdowns and the animals who waited in brutal conditions during live transport delays.
Even when animal exploitation leads to health threats, it continues in the search for health solutions. While the authors point out that the COVID-19 vaccine was an incredible accomplishment, they question whether animal testing was a necessary part of the process. Research shows that animal testing is an unreliable method for finding solutions to human health, and the first two vaccine candidates were tested on humans and animals simultaneously. In other words, was all that animal suffering really necessary?
In our current system, vast numbers of animals are bred into existence and inserted into our food systems, supply chains, and research facilities, only to be treated as disposable when a health threat occurs. Although the One Health framework recognizes the connection between humans and animals, it seeks to reform, rather than fundamentally challenge, the systems that pose these health risks in the first place.
As a solution, this paper argues for a global health framework that considers animal health for the animal’s own sake. Traditionally, critics have argued that only humans are worthy of such moral consideration based on abilities such as abstract reasoning and logic. However, the authors point out that these views are becoming outdated in favor of more inclusive markers, such as a sense of self and consciousness. In this way, a truly universal right to health would include all humans as well as other animals.
On a practical level, this paper calls for governments to recognize the legal right to health for humans and animals alike. Instead of a reforms-based approach, systems like our animal-based food system that inherently place so many animals at risk should be phased out, and animal health research should be conducted to support the animals themselves. Furthermore, when animal and human interests conflict – which could be largely avoided if we stopped exploiting them in such high numbers – the cost to animals should be considered with higher moral value. Finally, animals should be taken into account in policymaking, infrastructure design, and other decisions that affect global health outcomes.
Under our current dysfunctional system, we fall into crisis by exploiting animals only to harm more animals as we try to protect ourselves and find a solution to the crisis. However, papers such as this one remind us that the suffering animals endure is too enormous to ignore. Perhaps a truly healthy future requires reimagining our relationship with animals altogether.