This is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Think Like A Vegan. If you are interested in pre-ordering the book, you can do so here.
Zoonotic diseases entail pathogens causing disease in animals changing and making the genetic jump to become pathogens for human infection. The science of how that happens is beyond the scope of this book. Measles, tuberculosis and smallpox have their origins in pathogens affecting cattle. All types of flu originate in pathogens affecting pigs, ducks and chickens. Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, originates in pathogens affecting pigs, and dogs. Malaria has its origins in pathogens affecting birds, possibly chickens and ducks. There are many more zoonotic diseases, but these examples are some of those that have spread to become pandemics.
However, this isn’t about the Covid-19 pandemic. This is about our using animals as commodities, which has facilitated diseases jumping from animals to humans. Covid-19 is just one of the most recent zoonotic pandemics, but there have been many and they’ve occurred regularly throughout history. They’ve existed since we began farming animals.
We don’t think much about the origins of those old diseases, such as measles, small pox, whooping cough, malaria or the flu, because they’re already part of the fabric of who we are as a species. We rationalise the existence of these diseases as just a part of life. We don’t think about animal use being a problem because we view animals as objects existing solely for our benefit, much like we don’t think about sofas or pencils. We don’t make a connection between our actions and existing diseases. And even if we do, we know it, but we don’t feel it.
With this gaping hole in our logic, we face each new zoonotic disease and resulting pandemic as a risk we take because we believe we need to continue using animals as resources. We even distract ourselves from the seriousness of some of those diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, by referring to them as childhood diseases, as if they were a rite of passage, instead of very serious and potentially deadly.
All these pathogen cross-overs had their origins in the familiar farmed animals we still consume today. And diseases such as flu, measles, tuberculosis, pertussis, small pox, and malaria, originated in the small-holdings that have underpinned animal agriculture since we began domesticating and herding animals thousands of years ago.
They were serious diseases when they first emerged and they still are. Some of these diseases wiped out entire indigenous populations, both accidentally through simple contact with colonisers and on purpose by those colonisers as a method of purposefully wiping out populations resisting conquest. In any event, pandemics associated with most of these diseases caused cataclysmic suffering and death all over the world. Some of these diseases continue to exist and kill millions.
Today, some pathogens are emerging from wild animals. For example, HIV/Aids is thought to have originated in chimps through consumption of bush meat. Whether Covid-19 is conclusively traced to the trade in wild animals will be something science will likely establish. But neither the species of animal hosting the original pathogen, nor the country nor location of the infection are facts that count beyond scientific inquiry. It does not matter whether the location is a wet market in China or a quaint farmers’ market in Provence or the Cotswolds. Wet markets can be found everywhere, not just in China, and many food and farmers’ markets in general will also sell animals, alive or dead, but are simply not referred to as wet markets. It also doesn’t matter whether the location is an industrial or a small farm, a regulated fish or meat market, a dairy or egg farm, an abattoir or any other establishment breeding, processing or selling animal products. Each of these locations is, and has been, equally a potential breeding ground for zoonotic diseases and starting points for pandemics.
We are all complicit in facilitating the existence of these new or variations of the old diseases. How? Four ways. First and at the core of all the other reasons, we believe animals are objects to be exploited. Second, we are still farming them, despite knowing the associated risks and damages from deforestation, environmental degradation and antibiotic resistance all of which will bring a variety of new diseases or impossibility of treating old ones. Third, economic conditions and systems turn everything into a commodity at ever increasing speeds. Finally, those same systems and conditions drive people, whether by necessity or greed, to search inexorably for, and exploit, anything and anyone possible, including wild animals and forests.
The historical argument of having to exploit animals for food, transportation and labour to permit humanity to develop as it has done, is immaterial now. We cannot change our past and how we evolved to this point. We used other animals to further our own development. We don’t need to continue to do so. Exploiting animals was, and continues to be, a deal with the devil costing human and animal lives. It’s time we upend the old rules and reframe our thinking.
 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Vintage Books, London, 2005, p. 207. See also, Viveca Morris “Op-Ed: COVID-19 shows that what we’re doing to animals is killing us, too”, Los Angeles Times, 2 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-04-02/coronavirus-pandemics-animals-habitat-ecology.
 We discuss the environmental impacts of animal agriculture elsewhere in this book. For an overview on the contribution by animal agriculture to antibiotics resistance, see Antimicrobial resistance in the food chain, World Health Organization, November 2017 https://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/antimicrobial-resistance/amrfoodchain/en/