COVID-19 has been a miserable, even tragic, experience.
Another killer pandemic? It’s certainly not something we want to experience again anytime soon, or ever.
I know San Diego, where I grew up, has suffered greatly at the hands, or spikes, of the coronavirus.
But here’s the good news. If we’re serious about greatly reducing the chances of a second, quite possibly worse, pandemic, the solution is simple and comes with wonderful side effects.
A transition to plant-based diets on the individual level, and away from animal agriculture on the societal level, will not only help prevent another pandemic — it will improve your health, spare animals from suffering, reduce environmental degradation, and even lessen world hunger.
And it will move you into alignment with Judaism’s most noble values.
The Origin of Epidemics
A little history is in order.
Throughout most of human history, there were no epidemic diseases.
“No one got the flu, not even the common cold, until about 10,000 years ago,” said Dr. Michael Greger, author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.
What happened 10,000 years ago? We began domesticating animals.
“When we brought domesticated animals to the barnyard, they brought their diseases with them,” Greger said.
Measles, for instance, has killed 200 million people over the course of history. It entered into the human population from cattle, in the form of the rinderpest virus.
The flu, which takes the form of many viruses, originally came from domesticated ducks.
Even the common cold came from camels.
In the mid-20th century, scientists developed vaccines to slow and even stop the spread of some of the worst infectious diseases. Measles. Polio. Smallpox.
But in the last 35 years or so, humanity has been visited by an unprecedented variety of frightening virus outbreaks.
AIDS. Ebola. SARS. MERS. The swine flu. And now COVID-19.
In addition to their lethality, these viral outbreaks have something else in common. All of these diseases are zoonotic, meaning they spilled over from animals into the human population.
In fact, all of them have come about because of the confinement, slaughter and consumption of animals. Yes, even AIDS.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, made the jump from animals to people when someone slaughtered a chimpanzee for meat. The chimpanzee was carrying the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV).
What We Can Do
Fortunately, we have the power to greatly reduce our chances of creating another pandemic.
“To prevent future outbreaks like COVID-19 or worse, we have to treat planetary, animal and human health as inseparable,” Viveca Morris, executive director of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program at Yale Law School, wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times. “This will require … changes to business as usual.
“To date, we’ve operated under the fallacies that medicine and ecology can be understood independently and that the conditions that impact the animal kingdom are separate from those that impact humans.”
Preventing future outbreaks will require some dietary modifications. Positive ones. Eating plants, not animals.
In the words of University of Oxford zoologist Cynthia Schuck, “Our purchasing and dietary choices can build a safer future for generations to come.”
The author or authors of the Torah seemed to understand this.
In the very first chapter of Genesis, we’re told unequivocally that we should eat plants and only plants (Genesis 1:29).
The eat-plants edict remained in effect for the first thousand years of the Biblical story. Only after humanity had sunk to its lowest spiritual state (Genesis 9) did God reluctantly give people limited permission to eat animal flesh.
God tried again to impose a vegan diet when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, nourishing them with manna. And when a subset of the Israelites clamored for meat, God gave it to them, but the meat-eaters died shortly thereafter in a plague (Numbers 11).
So, as Jews, we were warned that the consumption of animals would trigger an outbreak of a lethal disease.
Today, factory farms, which produce literally 98 percent of our meat, are tinder boxes for a viral outbreak.
You’ve heard of social distancing? Well, in a factory farm, it’s the exact opposite. Animals are crammed together by the thousands in confined, indoor spaces, enabling viruses to easily spread and mutate.
This is not conjecture or paranoia. This is exactly what happened in 2009, when the swine flu spread from factory farms into the human population, killing as many as 500,000 people globally.
If you think the current pandemic is bad, and it is, we could really be in trouble if the H5N1 bird flu becomes more contagious. First identified in a poultry farm in 1997, H5N1 has killed more than 50 percent of the people who have become infected.
The only thing that has spared humanity from a devastating H5N1 pandemic is the low rate of human-to-human transmission.
If the H5N1 were to mutate into a form that is more transmissible from human-to-human, like the new coronavirus, this bird flu could kill anywhere from 5 million to 350 million people, according to an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
Now Is the Time
Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner, making this a spiritually opportune time to make positive changes in our lives.
As Jews, we can set an example for the rest of humankind, we can truly serve as a light onto the nations, by transitioning to plant-based diets.
As individuals, there is no single change we can make that addresses more personal and global problems. When we transition to a plant-based diet, we can improve our health, spare animals from suffering, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and, now you know, do our part to prevent another pandemic.
And, this being Rosh Hashanah after all, we can commit ourselves to living up to Judaism’s highest values, which include showing compassion for animals and caring for both our personal and our planet’s health.
Let’s not wait for another pandemic to do this. Together, let’s prevent the next pandemic before it ever starts.
Jeffrey Spitz Cohan is the executive director of Jewish Veg, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring and helping Jews to adopt plant-based diets. He grew up in El Cajon and became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth Israel.
For more information on the connection between pandemics and meat-eating, and for free resources on transitioning to a vegan lifestyle, visit JewishVeg.org/pandemic.