Pandemic ethics: all pigs are equal

In the last few days the influenza pandemic has led to over 800 deaths, with another 240,000 expected in coming months. There has been rioting over the government response to the pandemic leading to 8 protesters and 7 police being injured.

Hang on. Are we talking about the same pandemic?

There has been a noticeable fall in the amount of media attention to the swine flu outbreak over the weekend. There have been 27 confirmed cases in the UK, 1000 worldwide, but thankfully so far only one human death outside the initial cluster in Mexico. Reading the papers I sense a certain disappointment that we aren’t going to witness the apocalyptic scenes imagined in the recent BBC drama series Survivors (aired late last year).

But one of the interesting features of the swine flu pandemic has been the way in which it has highlighted different attitudes to animals (in particular pigs) across the world. A health minister in Israel objected to the name swine flu because of Jewish and Muslim sensitivities to the consumption of pork. The US pork industry has also complained about the name ‘swine flu’ because of a worry about the effect of media attention on pork sales. And the Egyptian government last week embarked on a program to slaughter 250,000 pigs. So far some 880 pigs have been killed. This response has been widely criticised, since there is no evidence of ongoing transmission of the virus from pigs to humans. The plan led to clashes between pig owners and police over the weekend.

If there were documentation of spread of the virus in pig populations as well as spread to humans the pandemic might lead to further widespread animal slaughter – like that seen during avian flu outbreaks or the BSE crisis in the UK. While it might be bad for the animals to be destroyed, it would be difficult to be particularly concerned about such a cull since it would involve the killing of animals who would otherwise be killed for food. It would arguably be less problematic to kill animals to prevent human deaths than to satisfy dietary preference. One potential concern is that large scale culling would not involve the usual precautions to reduce animal suffering.

But there is also the possibility that the swine flu pandemic will improve conditions for pigs worldwide. It seems moderately likely that intensive pig farming contributed to the development of the new strain of influenza. The large corporation involved in pig farming near the epicentre of the flu outbreak in Mexico has vigorously denied that its farms had anything to do with the outbreak. Nevertheless there has been an upsurge in media interest in and public concern about the conditions in which pigs are raised. Some 1 billion pigs are killed by humans for food each year. A large proportion, especially in continental Europe and North America are reared intensively, deprived of light and space to turn around, castrated without anaesthetic, their tails docked to prevent other pigs biting them.

So perhaps it is a shame that the official name for the influenza pandemic has been changed to H1N1 influenza. Some have complained that the new name is less catchy than the old. But while the pigs will no longer be blamed for the flu, they may also end up being forgotten.

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