Arnon Grunberg



On animals and punishment - David Benatarin NYT:

'The coronavirus arose in animals and jumped the species barrier to humans and then spread with human-to-human transmission. This is a common phenomenon. Most — and some believe all — infectious diseases are of this type (zoonotic). That in itself does not put them within the realm of human responsibility. However, many zoonotic diseases arise because of the ways in which humans treat animals. The “wet” markets of China are a prime example. They are the likely source not only of Covid-19 but also of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and some outbreaks of avian influenza, for example. (Another possible source of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 may be one of the many mixed wildlife-livestock farms in China, but humans are responsible for those, too.)

The “wet” markets, which are found not only in China but also in some other East Asian countries, have a number of features that makes them especially conducive to spawning infectious zoonotic diseases. Live animals are housed in extremely cramped conditions until they are slaughtered in the market for those who have purchased them. In these conditions, infections are easily transmitted from one animal to another. Because new animals are regularly being brought to market, a disease can be spread through a chain of infection from one animal to others that arrive in the market much later. The proximity to humans, coupled with the flood of blood, excrement and other bodily fluids and parts, all facilitate the infection of humans. Once transmission from human to human occurs, an epidemic is the expected outcome, unless the problem is quickly contained. Global air travel can convert epidemic to pandemic within weeks or months — exactly as it did with the coronavirus.'


'Those who think that this is a Chinese problem rather than a human one should think again. There is no shortage of zoonoses that have emerged from human maltreatment of animals. The most likely origin of H.I.V. (human immunodeficiency virus), for example, is S.I.V. (simian immunodeficiency virus), and the most likely way in which it crossed the species barrier is through blood of a nonhuman primate butchered for human consumption. Similarly, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease probably had its origins in its bovine analogue — bovine spongiform encephalopathy (B.S.E.), or “mad cow disease.” The most probable mechanism of transmission is through human consumption of infected cattle.

In the future, we should fully expect our maltreatment of animals to wreak havoc on our own species. In addition to future pandemics, we face the very real risk of breeding antibiotic resistance. The major contributor to this is the use of antibiotics in the animal agriculture industry, as a growth promoter (to bring animals to slaughter weight as quickly as possible) and to curb the spread of infections among animals reared in cruel intensive “factory farmed” conditions.

It is entirely possible that the human future will involve a return to the pre-antibiotics era, in which people died in droves from infections that have been effectively treated since the discovery of penicillin and other early antibacterial agents. If so, it may turn out that the antibiotics era was a brief interlude between two much longer periods in human history in which we succumbed in large numbers to bacterial infections.'


'Some might say that it is insensitive to highlight human responsibility for the current pandemic while we are in the midst of it. Isn’t it unseemly to rub our collective nose in this mess of our own making? Such concerns are misplaced. Earlier warnings of the dangers of our behavior, offered in less panicked times, went unheeded. Of course, it is entirely possible that even if we are now momentarily awakened, we will soon forget the lessons. There is plenty of precedent for that. However, given the importance of what lies in the balance, it is better to risk a little purported insensitivity than to pass up an opportunity to encourage some positive change. Millions of lives and the avoidance of much suffering are at stake.'

Read the article here.

A few remarks. At least in theory it should be possible to treat animals badly, as we do, and not only because we kill them - in many ways killing is the least of all the problems - and to avoid infections at the same time.

Above all, we should avoid the religious narrative that all this was a punishment. I know this narrative is very popular, also among people who don't think of themselves as religious, but that's because they haven't thought enough about themselves.

Mr. Benatarin's remarks about antibiotics are more relevant, yes also because of our meat consumption we risk antibiotic resistance, a catastrophe slowly becoming reality.

So we have an interest in not eating meat anymore. We might not care about the suffering of animals, but probably we care about ourselves. (I'm not a vegetarian.)
And by the way, I'm highly skeptical about the idea that we should give animals all kinds of rights. We haven't figured out how to give humans rights properly, and humans are more or less able to make themselves understood. At least, that is our presumption, that's the basis of our morality, our democracy; our belief in language is enormous. And probably for good reasons.

A couple of weeks ago a taxi driver in Amsterdam told me that we should obey the Jewish or Muslim food laws, that this would prevent many diseases. He himself was Christian. I had to giggle, kosher and halal food for the masses. But the taxi driver was on to something, at least according to Mr. Benatarin.

I would be willing to give up eating meat for public health. To outlaw eating meat is much less a threat to basic humans freedoms than confining people to their homes or turning traveling into a pastime for contemporary kings and counts.
Eating meat is not a human right, movement is.

If we can outlaw cannibalism we can outlaw eating meat. Yes, this will create a black market for let's say steak. In the future you might text your dealer for some coke and then you text another dealer for some steak, or maybe the same dealer. Given the fact that the quality of the not so real steak will only improve the need for the 'real steak' will probably diminish, so we are talking about a rather small market.

Whether this will happen world wide anytime soon is still doubtful, not to say unlikely. Think of smoking and public health. But the dire need might be a stronger argument than morality.

And Mr. Benatarin seems to leave open the possibility that eating fish is not that dangerous for us humans. The future might be pescatarian. Who can be against that?

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