OPINION: How can anyone eat animals after coronavirus?
I lock eyes with a septuagenarian in the empty pasta aisle at the supermarket. Her panic is palpable.
Everywhere I go, the air is thick with anxiety - a low hum of bewilderment and fear - as people struggle to process the influx of information about the virus now holding the world hostage.
The scenes are borderline apocalyptic: fights over groceries broken up by police with tasers and people dressed in hazmat-style garb just to catch trains.
From Asia and Europe come murmurs of months-long isolation, dwindling food supplies, and ever-increasing death tolls.
Financial experts predict economic catastrophe. Health experts forecast the crumbling of healthcare systems. The young hide their anxiety behind memes about the Netflix binge ahead, while elderly people and those with health concerns live in fear that this virus might be the one that breaks them. Health-care workers operate with exemplary calm, but the fact that our nation has only 2,023 public and private ICU beds surely can't be far from their minds.
Australia was having a rough start to the year even before COVID-19 became a household name. We were already battling drought and bushfires, seeing species after species spiralling towards extinction. And now, we wake up each morning to more disturbing headlines that make us ever more anxious that our doomsday draws nearer.
For all the energy we're expending on worrying, panic-buying toilet paper, and hoarding hand wash - and for all our climate-marching and water-restricting - are we really doing enough to turn things around? No - not even close. As scientists have been warning us for years, we're still missing an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to saving the world: ending the breeding, exploitation, and slaughter of animals for food.
While we still don't know for sure which species passed the coronavirus behind COVID-19 to humans, the consensus is that the virus originated at a wet market - a kind of hell on Earth where living and dead animals from fish to wolf cubs are sold for human consumption. Coronaviruses typically originate in animals: SARS-CoV was linked to civet cats and MERS-CoV to camels. And they're not the only nasty pathogens we might have avoided by leaving animals alone.
An outbreak of haemorrhagic fever caused by the Marburg virus began in monkeys used for experimentation, while ebola was passed to humans from bats. The swine flu pandemic of 2009 originated in pigs, avian flu outbreaks typically begin in birds on poultry farms, and HIV likely jumped from monkeys to humans who consumed their flesh. In fact, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75 per cent of emerging infectious illnesses come from animals.
Of course, that's not to mention the numerous lifestyle-related diseases that claim lives and burden our healthcare systems and are also strongly associated with our obsession with meat, dairy, and eggs. The World Health Organization has classified the consumption of processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans", while eating two servings of red meat, processed meat, or poultry per week is associated with up to a 7 per cent higher risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, our nation's number one killer.
Our current collective sense of dread stems from not knowing what the future holds, but we can learn from the past - and we can heed the advice of experts in the present. Follow the coronavirus back in time from nursing home deathbeds and you'll arrive at a wet-market floor, slick with blood.
Let your eyes scan back from the paddles being used to restart the hearts of Aussies and you'll be looking at chapter one of the human love affair with sausages and steak. And retrace our steps from the heat-trapping methane that now warms our atmosphere and you'll find yourself at the business end of one of the planet's 1.4 billion cows.
Unless we change our ways, the headlines will only get bleaker. In the years to come, the climate crisis will worsen, more pandemics will be unleashed, and millions of people will die needlessly of preventable, lifestyle-induced illnesses.
Clearly, our morally bankrupt decision to exploit other animals for their body parts is proving deadly in more ways than one. But as solitude reigns during this time of social distancing, we have the ideal opportunity to reflect and rethink. Ending animal use won't solve all our problems, but it would go an astoundingly long way towards solving many of them. Doing something as simple as opting for plant-based foods can have powerfully positive outcomes. We can emerge from this crisis with a new-found sense of logic and compassion, ready to steer the planet and all its inhabitants in a promising new direction.
Emily Rice is the Senior Outreach and Partnerships Manager at PETA.