Movement – animal and human – key to pandemics

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coming weeks will test how Americans respond to restrictions of their civil liberties. Surges in grocery store visits combined with elevating panic on social media and non-compliance with public health recommendations suggest that challenges are ahead. But, especially for those of us with homes and jobs, it isn’t our own freedom of movement that we should be most concerned about.

More concerning restrictions on freedom of movement are those that affect some of the most vulnerable populations to the pandemic, such as asylum seekers held at our southern border and in detention centers across the United States, including in New Mexico. Many countries have already tightened or closed their borders to migrants fleeing realities far worse than the novel coronavirus. As a result, migrants are often forced to stay in small camps, where the risk for disease transmission rises with increased crowding. Likewise, an outbreak can spread quickly in detention centers, where detainees have few liberties and limited access to health care. Currently, ICE is ignoring recommendations to release immigrant detainees to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Paradoxically, it is probable that restrictions on freedom of movement led to this pandemic. The likely source of COVID-19 was animal markets in China, where the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic – also a coronavirus – similarly emerged. In these markets, animals are kept in small cages, piled on top of one another, and bought alive to be killed on the spot. The practice is not unique to China. Nor is the practice of confining mammals, birds and other animals for food production. In the United States, almost 10 billion animals are killed every year after being kept in confined animal feeding operations, also called factory farms. In 2009, the H1N1 virus, the so-called “swine flu,” most probably emerged as a result of pig confinement in the United States and Mexico. Factory farms are also responsible for environmental injustices against vulnerable people, including air, water and soil pollution.

Once we get through the current pandemic – and we will – we will have serious occasion to reevaluate how we treat the right to freedom of movement, including that of animals. Seen through a clear lens, the newest coronavirus is a symptom of our inattention to the biological link between basic liberties and health, and the indisputable connection between the welfare of people, animals and the planet. We should not miss this opportunity to look more deeply at the roots of “symptoms” such as COVID-19 or H1N1 in order to abate further disease and suffering.

As people across the country find themselves increasingly unable to travel amid the COVID-19 outbreaks occurring worldwide, now is the time for us to think critically about the links between basic human and animal rights and health outcomes. Medical and public health professionals, historians and scientists increasingly recognize these relationships, which are borne out in our communities and in our global market. Although we can each make a difference through individual choices, we also need policy change to help shift norms and everyday practice.

State and local health departments, national governments and international organizations like the World Health Organization can take this chance to fully embrace the importance of rights in their mission to include those that animals share with us. Some policymakers are already moving in this direction. China recently shut down the farming of wildlife, and Vietnam’s prime minister called for a similar ban. Closer to home, in 2019, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker unveiled legislation that would place a national moratorium on large factory farms that confine animals.

All of these measures would lead to health benefits for some of the most vulnerable people and animals, and they should be viewed as important first steps. Without increased attention to the relationship between basic rights and health – for everyone – one health crisis will continue to follow another.

Dr. Hope Ferdowsian is a medical expert for Physicians for Human Rights and president of the Phoenix Zones Initiative.


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