Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

The Vaccine and Fighting the Pandemic’s Roots

The new COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out offer us the promise of returning to normal, getting back to work and school and the lives we had before. The possibility of stamping out the coronavirus for now also provides an opportunity to think about whether our state-of-the-art vaccines, and treatments, will eradicate the problem at its root, or only address the latest symptoms.

Like antibiotics for treating bacterial infections, the new vaccines address external signs of the coronavirus but not the true cause. The root cause of this pandemic is humans’ continuing act of reaching deep into nature to take as much as we can for our use; the result has also drawn into human society a deadly pathogen that once only lurked in caves. Meanwhile, our acts of putting 80 billion animals in factory farms so we can consume as much meat, dairy, eggs, and fish as we want—much more than we need—are root causes of additional, recent zoonotic disease transfer from animals to people, such as MERS and Mad Cow disease.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In the year since the coronavirus emerged, I haven’t noticed much change in our relationship with nature. Sometimes because of public health constraints on our daily logistics, yet other times through our own choices, screen time and online shopping have increased. Use of plastic bags and packaging have resurged even in places previously committed to their reduction. And I haven’t noticed much progress in our relationship with those 80 billion animals.

My hope and prayer is that we won’t let the solving and passing of this pandemic lull us into apathy about the true fixes we need to make in order to live in balance with God’s creation. As I wrote in my Times of Israel blog post at the beginning of the pandemic, is there something about the way humanity is living that brought this pandemic upon us and fueled its accelerating spread? This may be a difficult question to hear, with all the suffering many people are going through right now. But if we don’t look deeper and address the problem at its roots, then it is likely to repeat itself with devastating impact.

Pangolins, which are scaly ant-eating mammals, were most likely the intermediate host of the coronavirus, according to research at South China Agricultural University. The study found that the genetic sequence of a pangolin coronavirus strain “was 99 percent identical to that of infected people in the recent coronavirus outbreak.” COVID-19 likely emerged from the Wuhan wildlife market, where pangolins and many other live animals are sold. As an article in the Israeli newspaper Mekor Rishon notes, what happens in Chinese wildlife markets is not just a Chinese problem but an international problem.

Some years ago, I went to a wildlife market in Hong Kong. I was astonished to see live birds, fish, and mammals, including pangolins in small cages.  Little did I know Hong Kong “accounted for more pangolin seizures than any country,” according to  the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group. Between 2013 and 2017, “Hong Kong seized 43 metric tons of pangolin scales and carcasses — representing tens of thousands of animals — in shipments arriving from six countries, principally Cameroon and Nigeria,” the New York Times wrote. “Pangolins are believed to be the most frequently illegally trafficked mammal in the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared all eight species as ‘threatened with extinction’ since 2014.”

The bigger issue goes beyond eating pangolins and trading these mammals in wildlife markets. We are seeing an ongoing worldwide incidence of disease outbreaks involving animals: SARS, MERS, Swine flu, bird flu, Mad Cow disease and more. These viruses transfer to people from animals we control, trap or farm. The Saudi control of camels spread MERS, with camels as the intermediate species between bats and people. China recently experienced a massive Swine fever outbreak which decimated its population of pigs raised for meat. But the challenges we are all facing go well beyond China, since per capita consumption of meat in China is about half of that in the U.S. or Australia.

The deeper environmental/health issue centers on a common pattern of behavior among people: excessive domination and frequent consumption of animals. This especially involves chickens, cows, and pigs, and our consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs.  British control of huge numbers of cattle spread Mad cow disease. Here in Israel, Israelis are the fifth highest per capita consumers of meat in the world. While many people are focused on climate change and the downside of our extraction of fossil fuels, coronavirus reveals a downside of our exploitation of animals which we must address.

Some people think we can put 80 billion animals in cramped industrial warehouses with no ramifications, while people can stay above and separate from nature and insulated from the fate of animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. The health of people, animals, and nature is all intricately interconnected. This principle is known as “One Health. When animals suffer, we suffer. When animals are healthy, we can be healthy.

There is also a spiritual dimension to how we treat animals, as I wrote in the recently published Eco Bible: Volume One: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus. The Psalmist wrote, “God is good to all, and God’s compassion is on all His creatures.” According to Rabbi Aha, when God created Adam, the first human being, God brought before him all the animals He created and asked, what are their names? Adam then proceeded to give names to all of the animals. This indicates that God wanted Adam to be in a positive relationship with them (Midrash Genesis Raba 17:4). In the first chapter of Genesis, the Bible describes God creating animals with souls. If we remember these teachings, it will be more difficult to maintain a system that keeps tens of billions of animals in cages for our consumption.

The coronavirus is messaging to us that we deeply need to change our ways. To prevent such a pandemic from happening again, we can start by changing what we put in our mouths. That, and not the vaccine, is the key to preventing the next pandemic.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the international Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD), including its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Yonatan is coauthor of the bestselling book Eco Bible, published by ICSD, which shines new light on how the Hebrew Bible and great religious thinkers have urged human care and stewardship of nature for thousands of years as a central message of spiritual wisdom. He has spoken internationally on religion and the environment, including at the UN Environment Assembly, the Fez Climate Conscience Summit, the Parliament of World Religions, and the Pontifical Urban University. He co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Jerusalem, New York City, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. ICSD reveals the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes faith communities to act. Yonatan is a member of the United Nations Environment Program's Faith-based Advisory Council, and of the Pontifical Universities' Alliance for Laudato Si' Advisory Council. As part of ICSD's Faith Inspired Renewable Energy Project in Africa, he has been involved in facilitating the development of a commercial scale solar field on church lands in Africa. Yonatan is lead author and general editor of two other books on Jewish environmental ethics including Uplifting People and Planet: 18 Essential Jewish Teachings on the Environment. Yonatan also co-authored three ICSD reports on faith and ecology courses in seminary education in Israel, North America, and Rome. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He was a Dorot Fellow, PresenTense Fellow, and Haas Koshland Award recipient. He lives with his wife, Shana, and their two children in Jerusalem. He enjoys hiking and being in nature.
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