In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coming weeks will test how Americans and global citizens respond to voluntary and involuntary restrictions of their civil liberties. Surges in beach and grocery store visits combined with elevating panic on social media suggest that challenges are ahead.
There are serious questions about whether mass quarantines during pandemics are as effective as other interventions, in part because of inadequate compliance with public health recommendations. If recent history serves as an example, legal tests of mandatory quarantines will not necessarily favor public health mandates. Following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a civil rights lawsuit filed against New Jersey officials led to new requirements that respect individual privacy during public health emergencies. Since then, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enacted a rule that asserts the right to legal representation during mandatory quarantines, although it still allows for some relatively minor restrictions on freedom of movement, including attendance at public gatherings and certain forms of travel.
More concerning restrictions on freedom of movement are those that affect some of the most vulnerable populations to the pandemic, including asylum seekers held at the southern border and in detention centers across the United States. Countries in Europe, Canada, the United States, and other nations have already tightened or closed their borders to migrants fleeing realities far worse than the novel coronavirus. As a result, migrants are often forced to stay in small camps, where the risk for disease transmission rises with increased crowding. Likewise, an outbreak can spread quickly in detention centers, where detainees have very few liberties and limited access to healthcare.
Paradoxically, it is probable that restrictions on freedom of movement led to this pandemic. The likely source of COVID-19 was animal markets in China, where the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic—also a coronavirus—similarly emerged. In these markets, animals are kept in small cages, piled on top of one another, and bought alive to be killed on the spot. The practice is not unique to China. Nor is the practice of confining mammals, birds, and other animals for food production. In the United States, almost ten billion animals are killed every year after being kept in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), often called factory farms. In 2009, the H1N1 virus (the so-called “swine flu”) most probably emerged as a result of pig confinement in the United States and Mexico. Factory farms also inflict significant environmental injustices on neighboring communities, including through air, water, and soil pollution.
Once we get through the current pandemic—and we will—we will have serious occasion to reevaluate how we treat the right to freedom of movement, including that of animals. Seen through a clear lens, the newest coronavirus is a symptom of our global inattention to rights, the biological link between basic liberties and health, and the indisputable connection between the welfare of people, animals, and the planet. We should not miss this opportunity to look more deeply at the roots of “symptoms” such as COVID-19 or H1N1 in order to abate further disease and suffering.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the federal government passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act. Now, in order for states, cities, and counties to receive federal funding for their disaster relief plans, their plans must account for the needs of people with companion animals before, during, and after a major disaster or emergency. Resounding public support for the PETS Act implicitly acknowledged the connection between human and animal rights and wellbeing.
As people across the globe find themselves increasingly unable to travel amid the COVID-19 outbreaks occurring worldwide, now is the time for us to think more broadly about the links between the basic rights and health of people and animals. Medical and public health professionals, historians, and scientists increasingly recognize these relationships, which are borne out in our communities and in our global market. Although we can each make a difference through individual choices, we also need policy change to help shift norms and everyday practice.
International leaders and institutions must be proactive and alter the lens through which health is viewed. National governments, state and local health departments, and international organizations like the World Health Organization can take this chance to fully embrace the importance of rights in their mission—including those that other animals share with us. Some policymakers are already moving in this direction. China banned the sale of wildlife, and Vietnam’s prime minister called for a similar ban. Closer to home, in 2019, U.S. Senator Cory Booker unveiled legislation that would place a moratorium on large factory farms.
All of these measures would lead to health benefits for some of the most vulnerable people and animals, and they should be viewed as important first steps. Without increased attention to the relationship between human and animal rights, health, and wellbeing, one global crisis will continue to follow another.
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash.