Prevention is better than cure, so the aphorism goes. In the midst of a worldwide health crisis, we cannot help but wonder- could this all have been prevented? It may be too late now, but we can still hold out hope that future generations will learn from our mistakes and take the necessary measures to minimise the likelihood of pandemics such as the one we are living through.

Dr. Aysha Akhtar is a neurologist, public health specialist, Commander in the US FDA and Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She has a clear stance on the issue- it may be too late for us but it is not too late for our future. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 one can indeed be prevented. The solution? A fundamental change in the way the world views and treats animals.

She explains that “Three-fourths of emerging human infectious diseases come from animals. But it’s not the animals’ fault. If we want to prevent these diseases and save millions of people from untold suffering we have to face the inevitable and uncomfortable truth: the real culprit is how we choose to relate with and treat animals.”

It is agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic started at a market in Wuhan, China, which saw the trade of a plethora of animals. Species ranging from  pangolins, wolf pups, hares, snakes, raccoon dogs, porcupines, badgers, pigs, chickens, fish and peacocks were all alive- ready to be slaughtered on demand for customers. Alleyways in what is known as this ‘wet market’, cramped already, were often stained with the blood of these creatures.

It is no surprise that in such conditions the transmission of “zoonotic” diseases, which move from animals to humans, thrives. Particularly in the market environment, according to Professor Lee Poon, “These viruses can jump from one species to another species, then that species may become an amplifier, which increases the amount of virus in the wet market substantially.”

The point of Dr Akhtar’s statement, however, is that this issue only begins in the market of Wuhan, China. She does not sugarcoat the situation, saying “The entire, global trade in animals needs to stop. A virus doesn’t care if it’s being transmitted through the illegal or legal trade. The wildlife trade as a whole is detrimental to ecosystems, cruel to animals, and poses a strong risk of emergence of new viruses. We need to take a hard look at how we relate with all animals.”

But just how does the worlwide trade in animals relate to pandemics? Dr Akhtar explains how the mass harvestation of animals, in a system which treats them as objects rather than living beings, is a hotbed for disease. When animals are subjected to such large scale cruelty, in a state which leaves them weakened and wounded, they are much more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections (much like us humans).

If animals all across the globe in an interconnected trading system are all under such conditions, it creates the perfect environment for pathogens to jump from creature to creature and ultimately human beings. Handling and coming into contact with such animals risks taking in the pathogens which such animals host.

Dr Akhtar’s statements are based on a scary reality- The US-based Wildlife Conservation Society says that “Some 60 per cent of emerging infectious diseases that are reported globally are zoonoses, and of the more than 30 new human pathogens detected in the past three decades, 75 per cent have originated in animals.”. Indeed, HIV and Ebola Virus to name but two examples originated from the illicit bushmeat trade.

It is imperative to consider that were a temporary ban on the trading of wildlife, introduced by the Chinese government earlier this month, made permanent future pandemics could well be averted. The production of animals for food and the global trade in wild animals must be curbed before its risks can amplify any further.

However, taking such measures has broader moral and philosophical implications. It forces us to reconsider our relationship with animals as a whole. For such measures to become a reality, it is perhaps time to start viewing them as fellow living creatures rather than commodities to be traded in a market.

At a time when the human species is facing a crisis, perhaps it is a pivotal moment for us to to our humanity to find the solution. A world that displays compassion to animals, especially those in the wild, leaving them in their natural habitats rather than harvesting them for our consumption, could perhaps be the greatest force to stop future pandemics in their tracks. Empathy is, after all, a powerful tool to change the world.