Pandemics Will Keep Coming Until We Address the Root Causes
by Marsha Rakestraw and Hope Ferdowsian
January 10, 2023
Last fall, President Biden said that “the pandemic is over.” But we only have to look at the growing numbers of deaths and hospitalizations to know that’s not the case.
Globally, nearly 6.7 million people have died so far because of COVID-19, and excess deaths—those that may not have been reported as COVID-19 deaths due to issues such as testing limitations, delays in reporting, or the existence of chronic health conditions—are even higher.
And despite the increasing COVID-19 rates (not to mention those of RSV and the flu) and pleas by public health officials for people to mask up, people in wealthier countries around the world complain of being “mask-weary” and of wanting to return to “normal.”
Privileged countries, such as the US, have dismally failed at protecting their residents and seem to have learned very little about the need to take meaningful action to prevent future pandemics.
And the next pandemic is already on its way.
Missing the Point
Just look at these examples:
- Recently, monkeys shipped to the US from Cambodia were discovered to be carrying “deadly pathogenic agents, zoonotic bacteria and viruses,” and the CDC did not inform the public. (And the US is continuing to allow imports of long-tailed macaques from Cambodia, despite the risk.)
- The US and Europe are experiencing the deadliest “bird flu outbreak in history,” and while few cases have appeared in humans thus far, the risk for spillover is high.
- Despite the fact that antimicrobial resistance is a growing public health threat, the animal farming industry continues to use a dangerous amount of antibiotics.
Some scientists are taking steps to identify potential zoonotic “hotspots” or to improve responses to pandemics.
But many scientists, citizens, and government officials are largely ignoring this stark reality: our future literally depends on addressing the root causes of pandemics—including wildlife trafficking and intensive animal farming.
Pandemic responses and prevention thus far have largely focused on risk assessment and mitigation within the bounds of a system of exploiting people, animals, and the planet. These approaches reinforce ongoing human, animal, and environmental commodification in agriculture and trade—fueling inequality, violence, and the triple planetary crisis of climate change, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss.
Ending the global wildlife trade is a necessary and vital solution to preventing another outbreak, saving millions of lives, and avoiding trillions of dollars in economic losses.
Ending Animal Trafficking
Worldwide, humans traffic animals to become food, traditional medicine, entertainment, and other commodities—mainly to wealthy countries such as the US, which is the largest importer of wildlife. While exact numbers are hard to quantify, both the legal and illegal wildlife trades are multi-billion-dollar industries.
The harms caused by trafficking billions of animals every year are staggering. Aside from inflicting animals with egregious suffering, death, or a life in captivity, both the legal and illegal animal trades significantly increase the risk of triggering more outbreaks.
And the situation for intensive animal farming is no better.
Studies show, for example, that intensive farming, and deforestation (much of which is in service of animal farming), increase the risk for pandemics.
Taking Bold Action
If we’re going to avoid another pandemic, it’s imperative that the US take bold action. The US cannot afford to blunder on animal trafficking as it has with the COVID-19 pandemic. Two bills have bipartisan support and would serve as strong models of what’s possible, but they have been languishing in Congress.
The Preventing Future Pandemics Act would direct the US State Department to work with international partners to shut down commercial wildlife markets and end the import, export, and sale of live wildlife for human consumption.
And passing the Global Wildlife Trade Biosecurity Act would establish a taskforce to help prevent and respond to zoonotic outbreaks, and to develop a strategy to end the commercial trade in and demand for live wildlife for human consumption.
Achieving a Justice-Focused Pandemic Prevention Treaty
It’s also imperative that the world’s governments support a prevention- and justice-focused pandemic prevention treaty.
Phoenix Zones Initiative is working with an international coalition to establish an international pandemic prevention agreement, rooted in a wider, just One Health approach that addresses the need for primary prevention, including the interconnections between human, animal, and planetary health and wellbeing and related social and ecological determinants of health.
As part of that initiative, PZI has sent an open letter, which has been signed by more than 100 members of the medical and public health community, to the World Health Organization and other international bodies.
Evolving Our Relationships with People, Animals, and the Planet
Since nearly 75 percent of the world’s emerging infectious diseases stem from unhealthy contact between humans and animals, animal trafficking and animal farming are persistent threats to public health.
Deadly viruses that skillfully elude scientists don’t care about pandemic fatigue, and they thrive on our disregard for each other and other animals. The fact that China is planning to relax regulations on farming and selling wild animals is a perfect example of how we’ve failed to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
To prevent future pandemics, we must change the way we interact with animals and their habitats. Failure to do so will negatively impact public health, as we have seen with COVID-19. Never has the link between human, animal, and environmental health and wellbeing been so evident.
Find out more about PZI’s work on local and global policies to protect and benefit people, animals, and the planet.
Marsha Rakestraw is a senior education, outreach, and communication specialist with Phoenix Zones Initiative.
Dr. Hope Ferdowsian is an internal medicine, preventive medicine, and global public health physician and president of Phoenix Zones Initiative.