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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Covid-19 in slaughterhouses?

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

The New York Times at the moment has a daily table of Covid-19 cases and deaths in every US state. Here's the top five today (June 19th) ... sorted in descending order of the rate of cases per 100,000 people. New York is top with 2,008 cases per 100,000.

But what about slaughterhouses? What if they were a state, or city?

Back in May ... at the very beginning of May ... the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) published a survey showing that the 130,000 workers at slaughterhouses in the US had almost 5,000 covid-19 cases. Do the math, this is almost double the rate of New York state.

But what about New York City? It has a much higher case rate than the state. Dig a little and you'll find it had 2,558 cases per 100,000. So slaughterhouses have far more cases per person than New York City. But that's comparing slaughterhouses in May with New York City today. So what about now, toward the end of June? The Food and Environment Network is reporting that the current figure for covid-19 cases in US slaughterhouses is now over 27,000. That's about 8 times the rate for New York City; the only places worse than slaughterhouses are prisons; also evident in a NYT table.

But it isn't just US slaughterhouses getting this disease.

The CDC certainly has best data, but you'll find headlines in newspapers in other countries about clusters of covid-19 in slaughterhouses; for example Germany, Wales, France, Ireland. In Australia, one of our biggest outbreaks was at a slaughterhouse; Cedar Meats. Are our meat industries different, or is it just that the virus has never taken hold on the scale it has in the US? Meat and slaughterhouse production methods are, like any factory technology, global. We have just been lucky.

The latest June German outbreaks are just more of the same; the first outbreaks were reported in May. SARS-Cov-2 (the virus which causes Covid-19) is, like many viruses, a lover of crowds. People often associate crowd diseases with filth, but that's not accurate. The levels of cleanliness needed in hospitals to stop disease transmission easily surpass the good and are well into the realms of the obsessive. Living in close quarters is really all your need for potent disease transmission. Slaughterhouses everywhere, including in Australia, provide jobs of last resort for people with few choices and living in crowded conditions is just another manifestation of that lack of choice. You'd be hard put to distinguish the causal impacts of slaughterhouse working conditions and living conditions of slaughterhouse workers.

The top image of this post shows people working in very close proximity. With large animals, the gradual dismemberment and the proximity of the workers to one another are related. As the bits of the animal get smaller, the workers get closer together. Modern day slavery is how it is being described in Germany.

In Europe, slaughterhouses in rich countries are heavy consumers of "guest workers" (people who are citizens of a poorer country but who work in a richer one) to drive down meat prices. In Germany, the Covid-19 outbreaks have hit Romanian guest workers particularly hard.

Exploiting workers has been a hallmark of the meat industry for more than a century; at least. It was the central theme of the famous 1906 US novel "The Jungle". Sinclair was supposedly more concerned with worker exploitation than animal exploitation, but both feature prominently.

In 2011, Australia was rocked by "A bloody Business", an inside look at how cattle were (and most likely still are) killed in Indonesia. It included evidence that Meat and Livestock Australia systematically deceived farmers and others about the Australian designed killing process being used on the cattle we exported to Indonesia. They lied, not just a little, they made a slick video which helped them to lie on an industrial scale.

The declarations on envelopes have long amazed me. "The sender declares that the article does not contain ... explosive or incendiaray devices." Do they expect somebody who is happy to send bombs through the post to balk at lying about it? Similarly, why would we expect slaughterhouses to treat workers well? I guess anything is possible, but this is an industry with an extraordinary track record of bad behaviour across time, space and species.

Asian wet markets

The wet markets of Asia have been subject to considerable flak as an origin of at least 2 deadly viruses: SARS-Cov-1 and now SARS-Cov-2. The term "wet" implies live animals on site; slaughtering on site. Our finger pointing on these markets has upset the Chinese. They certainly understand the facts, but like us, they aren't keen on being the target of hypocritical outrage.

Australians prefer their cruelty to be out of sight; behind closed doors, or on trucks and ships. You can legally stick a pig on a truck for a 3-day trip in Australia ... without water. Ask anybody who has had experience with Australian animal welfare legislation and they'll tell you that our laws are intended to describe what farmers want to do with their animals; not to constrain them. Australian farmers ship sheep in conditions that make any Asian wet market look luxurious. They truck chickens when it is 40 degrees.

So why would anybody expect people who treat animals badly to treat people well? Not in Germany, not in Australia and not in China. Nothing's impossible, just very unlikely.

And what will happen after Covid-19? The Germans are promising reform. The Americans are promising reform. The Chinese are promising reform. Australia? We dodged a bullet. Cedar Meats isn't big enough to single handedly deliver us into Covid-19's hands; even the Ruby Princess didn't manage that ... besides which most of us are too busy with other things to be worried about slaughterhouses; like worrying about our jobs, or if we have one, wishing the footy was back on our ovals.



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