As the debate continues over the origin of Coronavirus in Wuhan’s wet markets, the fact is such places must be banned altogether given future threats to humans and animals as well
While a contentious debate rages as to whether the COVID-19 virus emerged from a “wet” market selling live animals, including exotic ones, and their meat in Wuhan, China, or escaped/let out of a virology laboratory at the same place, the case for banning such markets in every country needs to be pursued vigorously. Simply put, these should not exist. There are two main reasons for this. Animals — including crocodiles, deer, raccoons, pangolins and dogs — suffer horrendous cruelty. They are kept in utterly cramped and most unhygienic conditions, which cause them stress 24/7, and are grossly underfed. The stress factor is heightened by the fact that they often have to watch others of their species kept with them being slaughtered in their presence and their meat sold. In fact, wet markets owe their nomenclature to the blood spilled on the floor when animals are killed. Many in India, who have bought chicken meat from often-illegal roadside stalls, have seen it. Many buyers have also witnessed their feathers being plucked from them even when they are alive, with them screeching in agony.
All this is nothing secret. Worse, it comes at the end of the long journeys in the worst possible conditions of confinement involving dehydration and starvation. The inhuman manner of prolonged transportation, as well as the abominable conditions in which they are kept in the markets, weaken their immune systems and leave them most vulnerable to diseases. Besides, keeping wild animals along with domesticated ones enables viruses to jump species, including transmutation to affect humans, which has happened in the case of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, a number of epidemics, including that of SARS, have originated from such markets and will emerge again if the latter are not closed worldwide.
Apart from the medical consequences for humans, the existence of wet markets raises fundamental questions relating to their future. These exist because people not only eat meat but believe, consciously or sub-consciously, that they can treat animals — which exist for their benefit — any way they want to. This, in turn, springs from the belief that they can treat nature, of which animals are a part, just as they desire, which, again, lies at the root of the environmental crisis which threatens humankind with extinction.
Clearly, one needs to examine humankind’s attitude to both animals and nature. The belief that animals are inferior to humans and meant for their benefit and, hence, can be treated in the cruellest manner, is a result of the Graeco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian and post-Renaissance-Enlightenment mindset which dominates modern discourse. Its essence has been best expressed by Aristotle in Politics. He wrote that nature made all animals for the sake of man and that it was permissible to enslave people who did not possess reason as it was to enslave animals. Saint Augustine wrote in The City of God, “when we read ‘Thou shalt not kill’, we do not understand this phrase to apply to bushes, because they have no sensation, nor to unreasoning animals that fly, walk or crawl, because they are not associated in a community with us by reason…Hence it is by a very just ordinance of the Creator that their life and death is subordinated to us.” Given such views, it is hardly surprising that Matt Carmill writes in A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History, “animals were routinely treated with a mixture of brutal indifference and sadism” in the Graeco-Roman world.
The attitude continued beyond it. In Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Charles Patterson quotes Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest exponent of medieval Scholasticism, as saying that it was all right to kill animals because “the life of animals …is preserved not for themselves but for man.” He denied not only rationality but afterlife to animals. Patterson further points out, “Like Aristotle, whose work he incorporated in his theology, only the reasoning part of the soul survived after death. Since animals lacked the capacity to reason, he claimed that their souls, unlike human souls, did not survive after their death.”
As it has been repeatedly shown, the characterisation of rationality as the defining attribute of humans, is untenable. People are equally prone to irrationality. Otherwise, they would not have supported creeds like Nazism and Fascism — or any of the fundamentalist religious doctrines of our time — and voted Hitler and Mussolini to power. Besides, rationality can hardly be regarded as a supremely laudable faculty in itself. It is an instrument for drawing conclusions from premises. The capacity for reasoning, which is central to it, can be used to justify both moral and immoral ends. Also, not all persons are equally capable of reasoning. Does one, who is less capable than others, deserve to be treated with the kind of horrifying savagery that is reserved for animals? If the answer is yes, the question arises as to what is that level of rationality below which such treatment to humans is permissible?
Historically, madness, which came to be designated as mental illness at the end the 18th century, has been considered as something that puts a person beyond society’s pale. As Michel Foucault points out in Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, “in the majority of the cities of Europe there existed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a place of detention reserved for the insane…” There have been many definitions of madness. This writer believes that it is best considered as existence in a separate, personal reality very different from, and inconsistent with, what is accepted by the masses of people. The behavioural manifestation of madness lies in a person’s reaction, which can be violent and/or disruptive when there is a clash between his/her and the society’s version of reality. Thus, a person may consider himself to be Jesus Christ and fly into a rage if people laugh at his claim.
Questions arise. What if a person’s separate reality is the true one? There have been people in advance of their ages, such as Nicolaus Copernicus, whose model placed the sun rather than the earth as the centre of the universe and who held that the earth spun on its axis and orbited the sun annually. His doctrine, however, was pronounced heretical in 1616 and the Inquisition in Rome forced Galileo Galilei to recant his support of the Copernician view on June 22, 1633. In our time, we have seen dictatorial regimes like the Soviet Union silencing a dissident by proclaiming him/her insane and dispatching him/her to an asylum.
From this angle, it is quite clear that harping on animals’ lack of reason is a rationalisation of unpardonably cruel way in which humans have been treating them. It is not just animals. There are implications for humans. Patterson points in Eternal Treblinka, “Since violence begets violence, the enslavement of animals injected a higher level of domination and coercion into human history by creating oppressive hierarchical societies and unleashing large-scale warfare never seen before.” He further quotes the historian Keith Thomas as believing that domestication of animals created a more authoritarian attitude since “human rule over the lower creatures provided the mental analogue on which many political and social arrangements were based.”
Clearly, human beings cannot escape the adverse consequences of their own inhumanity be it in respect of themselves or other living beings. We are in the midst of the devastating consequences of COVID-19 pandemic. What next? Two telling lines by a Carter Family song, quoted by James Baldwin at the beginning of The Fire Next Time, run, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/ No more water but the fire next time.” Will it be a virus instead of fire?
(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)