It is a common fact that the world has changed dramatically over the last few months due to the spread of COVID-19. On a global scale, people’s lives have been transformed, and economic systems have been under immense strain. With the UK government placing its concerns firmly in the camp of economic recovery, two crucial things they have neglected to acknowledge are the simultaneous spread of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia; and our relationships with nonhuman ‘Others’.
At first glance, these are seemingly disparate oppressions. One remaining firmly located in the human sphere of interaction and the other, a concern for those only familiar with ecology and animal rights. Yet, and this is a bold statement, racism subtends speciesism. The spread of COVID-19 in recent months only goes to illustrate how overt acts of anti-Asian racism underlie our negative relations with nonhuman animals. Distinctions between who gets to count as human are enfolded within a violent construction of the world since the pandemic began; with racialised human ‘Others’ situated within the realm of nonhumans. This construction of sentience is part of a discourse rooted in ‘epidemic Orientalism’; a term coined by Alexandre White in 2018. This positions the West as needing protection from the threat of diseases that emerge from the colonised world. As a result, ‘otherness’ is ascribed to disease and linked to the daily lives of the colonised.
But, I hear you cry, what has that to do with the treatment of animals? How dare you lump animals and people of colour together under one dehumanised narrative? Is that not simply another example of white privilege and racism? The answer is no. The devil really does lie in the detail. One must render visible the opaque intersectional oppressions to truly understand how our current destructive epoch is impacting on the world. Many feminists and other arts and humanities scholars have uncovered the link between racism and speciesism, this article only adds to the wealth of evidence stacked against the current neoliberal order of things and its abject treatment of living beings – human or otherwise.
The most prominent example of this intersectional version of epidemic Orientalism occurred in April of this year. A total of 339 leading animal welfare and conservation organisations wrote an open letter to the World Health Organisation (WHO) advising that “governments worldwide [should] permanently ban live wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine.” Live wildlife markets are a prominent part of East Asian culture, and it is thought that Covid-19 originated in such places in China. The letter further declares that “the risk of zoonotic disease transmission is heightened further by the unregulated and unhygienic conditions associated with wildlife markets, where close proximity between humans and animals provide the perfect opportunity for pathogens to spread”. Epidemiologically this is not necessarily untrue. Yet what many animal welfare and conservation organisations are doing is underpinning speciesism with racism by promulgating narratives about the exploitation of pangolins and the daily lives of a vast majority of non-western peoples. Throw coronavirus and a pandemic into the mix and these narratives fuse to form a racialised mythological picture about people in China and their treatment of nonhuman animals.
I am not saying that endangered species (or any nonhuman animal) do not matter. Rather, the wildlife trade for consumption, medical research, and domestication is a problem – zoonotically, environmentally and ethically. But, it is the blanket claims of Western nations, that their attitudes towards the lives of nonhuman animals are better. This is illustrated most clearly in the deeply contradictory narrative promulgated by successive governments since the 19thcentury, that Britain is “a nation of animal lovers”. The continued use of factory farms to breed animals for human consumption is just one example of this paradox. Around 70% of British farm animals are born and reared in factory farms. This has increased in the last six years, where there has been a growth in the production of US-style mega-farmswhich receive millions of pounds in government subsidies.
Animals such as pigs and chickens live in cramped, squalid and severely unhygienic conditions. For instance, pigs are so stressed that they revert to tail-biting or similar acts of cannibalism. This form of exploitation over nonhuman animals creates the ideal conditions for zoonotic diseases to emerge. Couple this with a workforce on the farm and in the slaughterhouse which is comprised mainly of migrant workers on low pay, and you have an intersectional relationship of speciesism and racism under “one roof”; albeit one that is – compared to the wildlife and wet markets of East Asia – hidden from view.
Speciesism helps to foment “West is best” narratives about racialised ‘Others’ in distant lands and their treatment of nonhuman animals. This is, even more, the case when presented with a global pandemic which originated in an East Asian country, China, whose global domination and rise to being an international superpower has facilitated the re-emergence of the ‘yellow peril’ stereotype in recent years. In this coronavirus crises, nonhuman animals have become a useful tool of the West for aiding the dissemination of misinformation about the origins of zoonotic disease, fuelled hostility and racism towards people of colour and cemented the age-old Cartesian divides of human/nonhuman, white/non-white and clean/unclean even further.
About the author: Catherine Duxbury is a lecturer in Social Sciences at University Centre Colchester, Colchester Institute. She is also a Visiting Fellow in the Interdisciplinary Studies Centre, University of Essex.