PITTSFIELD — John Oliver recently brought up a subject on “Last Week Tonight” few people want to think about: What will we do during the next pandemic?
While it is understandable to want to focus on the current pandemic that is far from over, Oliver identified a few key controllable factors that can create pandemics like the one we’re going through, including deforestation, instances of where disease-spreading animals come into close contact with humans, and the rise of factory farms that raise animals in a way that disease can spread — and mutate — quickly.
“When you put all of this together, it does begin to seem like we’re actively trying to start pandemics,” he said. “Which brings us to the obvious question: How do we stop doing that?”
The obvious answer would be to reduce practices that can possibly cause pandemics as much as possible. Because it requires changing human behavior and potentially costly public policy measures, however, it presents a difficult but not unique challenge for activists, especially considering that nearly a year into the pandemic, mask compliancy is still an issue. Change will not happen overnight.
I got a brief glimpse into the world of activism five years ago when I directed the Save Antibiotics Campaign for the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts chapter of MassPIRG. It was and still is an incredibly important campaign, which PIRG chapters across the country work on to this day, that aimed to reduce the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, and it gave me a window into just how harmful the practice is. Essentially, factory farms raise livestock on an industrial scale, often having hundreds if not thousands of animals living in close proximity to one another, where disease spreads quickly. To keep these animals alive, using large quantities of antibiotics are absolutely necessary, and the campaign didn’t advocate for factory farms to stop using them, just for large purchasers of meat — like Subway and McDonald’s — to buy from suppliers who raised their animals in more humane conditions, where disease was not as present and antibiotics were not needed. The driving force behind the campaign was to prevent the creation of superbugs — antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could infect humans and make them incredibly ill — which factory farms run a large risk of creating. Antibiotics aside, factory farms also run a large risk of creating zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
It’s important that we don’t forget that COVID-19 most likely originated from animals, because it means that changing our relationships with animals could be the key to preventing the next pandemic. We also need to keep in mind that humans and nature are inextricably linked — we’re all part of a global ecosystem, even though many of us might think humans conquered nature.
If the pandemic ended tomorrow, it would be very tempting to go back to normal life, to lower our defenses and not only ignore the likely causes of the pandemic and what might cause the next one but also go without pandemic safeguards. As Texas has recently learned with their catastrophic power crisis caused by their power grid’s inability to handle colder weather, it can seem very attractive to go without safeguards you might rarely have to use during times of peace — but in times of crisis, unpreparedness proves to be catastrophic.
I have hope that activists will have an easier time advocating for pandemic preparedness and commonsense preventative measures now that COVID-19 and the struggles we’ve all endured during this pandemic have been burned into our collective consciousness, but they will face steep opposition to change many institutions’ ways. The Sentience Institute has estimated that a staggering 99 percent of farmed animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms. Ultimately — and especially until a definitive cause for the COVID-19 pandemic is identified — it might feel like fighting a hydra.
But we must do all that we can to not only make sure we’re better prepared for the next pandemic but to create conditions in which it is less likely to happen. Because as bad as this pandemic has been, the next one could be worse.
“There are viruses currently circulating in wildlife. They kill essentially kill 60 to 70 percent of the people that they infect,” Dennis Carroll, chair of the Global Virome Project said last year in a clip from the documentary series “Vice” that appeared on Oliver’s program. “This is not by any stretch of the imagination the worst mother nature has to offer us.”