Animal Exploitation and COVID-19: Is the darkest hour just before the dawn?

by Dr Alasdair Cochrane, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory for the Department of Politics and International Relations

Cows in a dairy farm

Most of my academic research on human-animal relations adopts a seemingly utopian tone. Rather than focus on the brutal exploitative of reality of how things are, I instead focus on the normative question of how things could be. What would a just and mutually beneficial multi-species society look like? How might democracy incorporate and be attuned to the interests of more-than-human constituents? Can we imagine forms of labour which are mutually beneficial for both human and non-human workers?

When I present my research I am frequently asked – quite rightly – how these fantastical visions could possibly be realised. From where we stand now – where billions upon billions of animals are bred, confined in horrific conditions and slaughtered in infancy – even the idea of benign human-animal relations seems distant. How can we possibly overcome the myriad economic, political, cultural, psychological and other barriers that stand in the way of something like multi-species justice?

My stock answer to such questions is undoubtedly unsatisfactory: ‘I don’t know’. Put simply, I have no roadmap that will guide us to this transformed society. And regrettably, I am not aware of anyone who does. 

Human self-interest

Nonetheless, to try and appear more than useless, I usually speculate that one possible way out of the current morass might lie in human self-interest. Maybe a global health pandemic of such devastating proportions will finally wake humans from their slumber. If that pandemic can be clearly linked to intensive animal agriculture, then surely we will come to see not only the injustice but also the folly of our treatment of other species, and seek to foster new mutually beneficial interspecies relations.  

We now stand in the midst of a global health pandemic of devastating proportions; and it is one which is clearly linked to intensive animal agriculture. To explain, one popular theory as to how the new COVID-19 virus emerged is that its source lies in so-called ‘wet markets’ in China: the virus jumped from the wild animals raised and sold there to human beings. Crucially, these markets are themselves a byproduct of intensive animal agriculture: big corporations have pushed Chinese smallholders into farming wild animals and raising them in remote regions where those animals are closer and more vulnerable to new viruses and diseases.  

Intensive animal agriculture

Other explanations for the emergence of COVID-19 make the link with intensive animal agriculture much more direct: in other words, the virus came not from wet markets, but from the intensive farms themselves. And this explanation should be of little surprise. The serious public health dangers of industrialised farming have been known for years. The close confinement and unsanitary conditions necessitated by such large-scale production make them a breeding ground for all sorts of new zoonotic viruses. Furthermore, in order to try to stop the animals from becoming ill as a result of their confinement, antibiotic use is routine (and often legally obligatory) in such farming. The consequence of this practice has led to one of the most serious public health issues of our time: human resistance to antibiotics.  

So will this current pandemic provide the wake up call which forces us to rethink and reshape our relations with animals?  Unfortunately, there are reasons to be doubtful.

The focus on wet markets

Thus far, the responses to the pandemic have eschewed addressing the tough political and economic questions that the growth and prevalence of intensive farming demands. Instead the focus has been on closing wet markets, clamping further down on the trade in wildlife trade and ending the ‘strange’ consumption patterns of foreign ‘others’. Such narratives can often demonstrate a worrying orientalism. But they also miss the mark for diverting attention away not only from the crucial role of intensive farming, but also from the political and economic structures which support it. For even if we could impose a worldwide ban on ‘bushmeat’ tomorrow, without addressing the systems and structures which support intensive farming – in other wordsourpolitical and economic systems – such viruses and pandemics will continue to emerge. 

Reaction vs. prevention

An additional response to the current crisis has been to rush to find treatments, including a vaccine. This response is obviously understandable and important. Nonetheless, it is reactive rather than preventive. As such, it does not address the political, cultural and economic transformations necessary to prevent such pandemics arising in the first place. Moreover, because the rush for a vaccine takes place within our existing political structures, it also inevitably leads to further massive exploitation of animals. Not only will animal experimentation massively ramp up to facilitate such research, but existing research animals are being killed as labs for other projects are shut or are retooled for research into COVID-19.


It seems, then, that I was wrong to speculate that a massive global health pandemic could be the trigger for us to radically rethink our relationship with non-human animals. The evidence so far suggests that massive and routine animal exploitation has and will continue unabated

And yet, perhaps this assessment is unduly pessimistic. The current crisis that faces us will not be ‘over’ any time soon. Its effects on our health, well-being, livelihoods, economies, freedoms and culture will be felt for many months and years to come. Furthermore, and unfortunately, we can also be confident that new and different viruses will emerge in the future, and further global health pandemics will take hold. Put bluntly, the current ‘responses’ to COVID-19 are preliminary. There will be – and will have to be – much more to come. My hope is that an important part of that response is not only a fundamental rethink of the ways in which we treat other species, but also a radical transformation of the institutions and structures which govern and shape existing inter-species relations.

Robot reading books

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