“We’ve been warning about this for decades”
COVID-19, the third outbreak of coronavirus in 20 years, wasn’t exactly unpredictable. Professor Pim Martens, who tries to integrate scientific knowledge and animal advocacy, talks about how zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans, foreground the complex interconnectedness of our wellbeing and our treatment of animals.
“It was strange – I had no idea. And even when the first reports emerged, I was quite sure they would contain it within the province….” Professor of Sustainable Development Pim Martens has been to China at the end of last year at the invitation of Bingtao Su, his former PhD student at Maastricht University. As a visiting professor, he spent two weeks lecturing at Shandong University and the Chinese Academy of Science.
Under his guidance, Su had studied the Chinese perspective on animal welfare, as compared to the Netherlands and Japan. They used questionnaires to collect data about how factors such as age, gender, or religion relate to attitudes towards animals. He is now also supervising PhD and MSc students conducting similar research in Indonesia and Spain.
Chinese attitudes towards animals
“Sustainability is underrepresented in Chinese Academics, but they are keen to bring in expertise, especially integrated perspectives on interdisciplinary sustainability science.” Sustainable human-animal relationship is a somewhat delicate topic in China: apart from the vast amounts of money at stake, there is also still a belief in the medicinal powers of rare animals’ organs as well as a cultural reluctance towards open criticism.
“China is a huge and very diverse country, so it’s difficult to generalise – that’s also what we’ve found in the study. It is true that they eat a much bigger variety of animals than we do – although you could also say it’s surprising how few animals we in Western Europe eat…” In any case, many suspect that wet markets, on which many different species of animal are kept in close proximity, is where COVID-19 has originated.
Meat, milk and raw materials
More and more animals are kept closely together in unsanitary or overly hygienic (antibiotics, etc.) conditions to satisfy the rising demand for animal protein of densely populated megacities. The need for space and raw materials perpetuates the encroachment on animal habitats like rainforests, which, in turn, brings more humans in contact with more exotic animal species. Add to that frequent international travel – both human and animal – and it’s excellent conditions for zoonosis.
Diseases moving from animals to humans isn’t entirely preventable of course. “It’s a question of probabilities – if we were all vegan animal rights activists, there could still be a zoonotic pandemic but it would be infinitely less likely.” And this was no perfect storm either. “Academics have been warning for decades that this will happen – it was always a question of when, not if.” We’ve had several zoonotic epidemics – several of them corona in fact – in recent decades.
Zoonosis closer to home
According to Martens, a Western European source of zoonotic disease isn’t unthinkable either. The Netherlands, for example, is a densely populated country with a lot of intensively farmed livestock: more than a 1.5 million animals are slaughtered per day, after having spent their lives at very close quarters indeed. The population is very mobile within the country and Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in Europe.
Martens cites the 2007 outbreak of Q Fever, a rather uncommon but devastating disease that can spread from livestock to humans. Dutch authorities were struggling to contain or monitor the spread and the original tally of 25 victims is now estimated to be closer to a hundred. The spread of the disease was eventually contained through a mass cull (of goats and sheep, that is) and by introducing a vaccine for animals.
Greater respect for nature
“The solution is greater respect for nature: moving away from industrial livestock farming, deforestation, wet markets, etc. This would also help address climate change, the impact of which will make this look like peanuts.” Martens’ own contribution to science – together with many international scientists – is studying the complexity and interactions between humans, animals and nature by, among other things, developing mathematical models to simulate the spread of zoonoses. But he also hopes to do his part in bringing about a change of attitude.
He was certainly heartened by how many students attended his lectures in China and how interested and knowledgeable they were. “You can tell that there is a cultural shift especially among young, educated people in urban areas.” Together with Su, he now wants to repeat the original study to see whether the COVID-19 outbreak has changed attitudes towards animal welfare in China.
Surely, it must have changed? Given the public and political discourse, Martens has his doubts. “Of course, economic recovery is very important, but I really hope we won’t rush back to business as usual without fixing the underlying problem.” He adds with a sigh: “If we haven’t learnt anything from this pandemic, then maybe we will from the next one…”
Pim Martens holds the chair 'Sustainable Development' at UM.
This article is part of 'We're Open', a series of stories about the UM community’s many activities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Martens and Bingtao Su in Maastricht
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