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Most of us are so consumed by trying to deal with the current pandemic that we’re not thinking through how to prevent future, deadlier ones. Such prevention rests up on a dual interplay of strong healthcare processes and a different orientation toward animals.

The American healthcare apparatus has proven woefully inadequate to arrest the onslaught of the COVID pandemic and, in its current state, will do little to hinder the arrival and devastation of the next pandemic. As noted in this article by the Washington Post, “testing remains inadequate throughout the United States, and chronic underfunding has left most state and local public health departments without a sufficient workforce to conduct mass contact tracing. Tragically, despite plenty of early warnings, the federal government was unprepared, misguided and disorganized in its response, leaving the states to fend for themselves.”

These systemic gaps and inefficiencies are coupled by the lack of health insurance itself for many Americans, reducing their changes of preventing, treating, and surviving COVID. “Since the pandemic hit the U.S.,” notes this article from CBS News, “more than 6 million Americans have lost health insurance they’d previously had through their work. And when you take into account spouses and children, the number of those affected climbs to more than 12 million.”

The journal Health Affairs asserts that “people who lose their insurance stop seeking diagnosis and treatment promptly when they first feel sick. Accordingly, ensuring coverage is not only a matter of protecting Americans from the devastating financial impact of uninsured health expenses, it is also an essential component of any viable public health strategy to contain infectious disease.  And without the health insurance our country needs to fight COVID-19, we will not achieve economic recovery. As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell recently explained, a ‘very fundamental fact about our economy right now’ is that economic recovery depends on bringing COVID-19 under control, so people feel safe leaving their homes and engaging in commerce.”

Better healthcare processes and coverage need to go hand-in-hand with steps to stem the emergence of viruses themselves. In his recent book How to Survive a Pandemic, Dr. Michael Greger details the pathogens that cause pandemics and how to stop them from emerging. Greger, drawing from stacks of research and his own experience and expertise, details how infectious diseases “share a common origin story: human interaction with animals. Otherwise known as zoonotic diseases for their passage from animals to humans, these infections—both pre-existing ones and those newly identified—have sparked some of the deadliest plagues in history.”

“Human interaction with animals” doesn’t mean taking your dog for a walk or petting your cat. In a nutshell, it’s both the production and consumption of meat products. Check out this Wired article to learn more; and for a closer look at just how inhumanely the meat industry treats its workers—and the politicians who enable this—read this.

According to this global study from the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, there are crucial connections between deforestation, wildlife trade, and the rise of infectious diseases. “Over the last 100 years,” the study notes, “two viruses a year spillover from animals to humans. Locations near the edges of tropical forests where more than 25% of the original forest has been lost tend to be hotbeds for animal-to-human virus transmissions. Wildlife markets and the legal and illegal trade of wildlife for pets, meat or medicine increase transmission. Investing $22-31 billion a year to monitor and police the wildlife trade and curb tropical deforestation can help prevent future pandemics.”

The aforementioned Washington Post article adds, “Protecting natural habitats from relentless human encroachment and creating buffer zones around protected areas are important long-term goals. More immediately, we can stop wildlife trade, not only by regulating, monitoring or shutting down live animal markets like the ones in Wuhan, but also by enforcing international law to combat illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. The United States and China are responsible for 60 percent of global imports and exports of all wildlife, respectively; it’s time for our two nations to step up.”

What each of us can do today

Health care is a right, not merely a “privilege,” and believing otherwise reveals indifference toward the suffering of tens of millions of fellow Americans. A critical mass of uninsured persons both increases the spread of COVID across the country and strains healthcare systems overall with additional expenses in the billions—impacts that also increase the likelihood of future pandemics and their associated economic shutdowns…which will lead to more loss of jobs and health insurance, continuing a downward spiral that will accelerate its reach across all socio-economic groups. Help prevent this by voting for politicians who will reform our public health systems and processes while enacting legislation that anyone who wants health insurance can afford to get it and keep it.

In addition, you can do what I did at the beginning of this year: stop eating beef, poultry, and pork. There are countless delicious and healthier alternatives available for a mostly plant-based diet. The meat industry will only continue to prosper if a critical mass of consumers continues to support it. Vote for political leaders who’ll drive policies that will protect both human beings and animals from viruses and cruelty.

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.