Intersections of suffering

Australian Greens

each specific occurrence of suffering is connected to a multitude of others. If we can’t see this, or if we refuse to, our responses to injustice will continue to reproduce and legitimise further suffering.

By Anna Sri

The first time I went to an abattoir I was nineteen years old.

Standing on the raised walkway over the holding yards, I watched as a few hundred head of brahman cattle shuffled beneath me, in various states of stress and apprehension. I will always remember their vulnerability in that moment, and the overwhelming sense of helplessness that struck me as I watched them, knowing they’d all be dead before lunchtime.

The intersection of animal suffering and human suffering happens more often than we, as a society, generally acknowledge. As a veterinarian, I am familiar with this intersection, and the political questions it poses. In thinking about our political response in these moments, it is critical that we recognise how forms of oppression and injustice overlap. Human rights and animal rights are connected; the idea that they can be treated separately is a fantasy.

There have been many times I have felt powerless to help animals. Yet that time at the abattoir remains one of the most impactful. It wasn’t just the animals that affected me that day. I was struck by the physical and emotional strength of the employees doing such tough, unpleasant work in a high-speed production line environment. Later, I wondered how they came to be working there, and what it meant to them to come to work each day. From existing data, we know that there are often grim social and psychological outcomes for people working in abattoirs. The combination of insecure working conditions, dangerous and emotionally-draining labour, and the pursuit of ever more “efficient” modes of production and destruction is disastrous for the health of workers. We also know that frequently abattoir workers are temporary visa holders, whose capacity to challenge their working conditions or lobby for more ethical work practices is severely limited.

This is why I appreciate the Greens’ pillars: social justice, ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, and peace and non-violence. These pillars provide a framework for thinking seriously about questions of justice, especially in moments where human, animal and environmental rights are compromised simultaneously. Without a framework for understanding the connections between these harms, we risk relegating some and upholding others; creating solutions to one form of injustice that replicate or worsen another. When footage aired on ABCs 7.30 report of mistreatment of horses in Queensland abattoirs, some viewers were so confronted by the abuse of animals that they demonised the workers, rather than looking at the industry as a whole. The reverse is true too. Every time there is a report of flying foxes carrying a disease or congregating in an urban area, people will inevitably call for the ‘plague’ of ‘dirty, noisy and smelly’ bats to be moved on or culled, prioritising public amenity over the lives of these keystone creatures.

At times like these, drawing on the Greens’ pillars can help us frame the discourse. By understanding the factors leading to conflict between human and animal wellbeing, we can address harm holistically. Many people simply don’t know how dependent human wellbeing is on ‘ecosystem services’ like pollination, seed distribution, waste decomposition and water filtration. Taking the time to educate someone about the vital role flying-foxes play in the pollination of eucalyptus species (and thus the survival of the much-loved koala!) can help instil appreciation and respect for the interconnectedness of species. Habitat fragmentation or the changing flowering patterns of traditional flying fox food trees might not be easy to capture in an irate tweet, but giving people the tools to understand how their lives are intertwined with the ecosystem they inhabit will have more impact in the long term.

The Black Summer bushfires in 2019/2020 made horribly visible what happens when we fail to see human, animal and environmental justice as inextricably connected. Thirty-three people died during the fires. Hundreds of people died from indirect smoke effects. Whole towns were destroyed. Communities are still suffering from the trauma, and waiting for assistance. More people still have experienced the ongoing health impacts of toxic smoke inhalation and other diseases related to the bushfires. The devastation is incalculable.

However, the loss of over a billion animals will also haunt us for years to come, and will have marked impacts on both human and animal life. Veterinarians on the ground were overwhelmed by the trauma of living through these fires themselves while also trying to assist injured wildlife and euthanise those animals and livestock who would not make it. Those of us that could not assist were left once again feeling helpless and horrified – the screams of animals suffering third degree burns are not easily forgotten. In subsequent media coverage the Australian Veterinary Association described Australia’s veterinarians as a ‘profession in grief’.

The world seemed united in their horror and support for Australia and its iconic wildlife species especially, with donations and offers of help pouring in from across the world. Yet, despite the individual convictions and desires of Australians, actual action to address the climate crisis has been minimal. We have failed to acknowledge the experiences and desires of those most affected, and our governments continue to ignore the recommendations of experts about how to mitigate future impacts. Australian political leaders continue to demonstrate short-sighted thinking and favours for industry mates. Imagine if we embraced social justice, grassroots democracy, ecological sustainability and peace and non-violence as our framework for addressing the climate crisis. We might find ourselves embracing a just transition; establishing citizens assemblies, drawing on existing and emerging technologies, changing our behaviours and developing circular economies that will support a prosperous future for all of us, including humans, animals and the environment.

While the Black Summer bushfires were dominating the news cycle in Australia and across the world, many in the public health and infectious diseases sector were already receiving reports of mysterious pneumonia cases in China. These were actually the first few cases of COVID-19. I remember feeling a shiver of apprehension when on 4th January 2020, I heard that we were releasing 450,000 P2 masks from the National Medical Stockpiles, all the while catching up on emails in my inbox from the International Infectious Diseases Society about ongoing pneumonia cases coming out of Wuhan. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt stated:

Although these P2 masks have been held in the National Medical Stockpile for use in pandemics, I have made them available today because of the urgent need to assist frontline workers operating in bushfire-affected communities.

It could have been the start of an apocalypse movie. The need to protect people from bushfire smoke is clear, but what this highlighted was a government scrambling to respond, and showing a lack of foresight, preparedness, and the inability to act on multiple crises at once. Australia has been insulated from the high morbidity and mortality rates experienced in other parts of the world mainly because of geographical distance, low population density, and high capacity for compliance with government health regulations. However, the government was actually shockingly underprepared compared to where we could have been. Had we heeded the warnings of infectious disease experts, we may have had more thorough plans in place, including more experience gained via large-scale pandemic planning exercises, which haven’t occurred nationally since 2008.

In 2014, research on influenza pandemic preparedness in Victoria concluded that:

Victorian hospitals would struggle with workforce and infrastructure problems, particularly in rural/regional areas. Staff absenteeism threatens to undermine hospital pandemic responses.

The lack of Australian manufacturing capabilities both in terms of drugs and vaccines but also personal protective equipment could have been foreseen. Our lack of a plan to safely return and quarantine the million Australians living overseas at any one time is still causing heartbreak and trauma more than twelve months later. The heavy reliance on policing to enforce restrictive health regulations disproportionately affected First Nations communities and other racialised populations; an outcome that was entirely foreseeable for anyone engaged in ongoing conversations about institutional racism in policing in Australia. The economic insecurity caused by unknowns around essential and non-essential workforces also caused unnecessary job losses and psychological stress, all of which could have been planned for and managed.

For those well versed in ‘planetary health’ – a field of research and way of systems thinking that links human wellbeing with that of animals and the environment – the Black Summer bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s piecemeal response to both crises came as no surprise. On our current trajectory, dealing with ongoing simultaneous disasters will become the norm. Drivers of disease emergence like habitat encroachment, intensive animal industries, and inequality of resource distribution are already well understood – we just need to respond. Using the Greens’ pillars to underpin our response to crises would ensure that future natural disaster or pandemic responses do not exacerbate existing forms of oppression and injustice.

When I think about why it’s important to understand the connections between human, animal and environmental health, I think of the first time I experienced the dirty, visceral realities of factory farming. As part of a practical class, in my first year as a veterinary student, I walked through the university piggery. I can still remember how itchy my eyes and throat were from the ammonia as I observed the crowded conditions and lack of stimulation for the obviously intelligent animals. At the time I was mostly concerned with animal welfare and I concluded that eating a factory-farmed animal was like eating suffering. Thinking about it now, I am struck by how large-scale factory-farming (and our cultural acceptance of it as a necessary part of generating profit) normalises the systematic oppression of some sentient beings in order to feed others.

By looking at the bigger picture, we can see how each specific occurrence of suffering is connected to a multitude of others. If we can’t see this, or if we refuse to, our responses to injustice will continue to reproduce and legitimise further suffering. As Greens members and supporters, the Greens’ pillars can offer us a critical framework for understanding all our inter- and intra-species interactions and responsibilities. To do otherwise is to miss out on opportunities for greater appreciation and connection with each other and the planet.

Anna Sri is a veterinarian and a public health advocate. She has been a Greens state candidate in Queensland, and also the Northern Territory lead Senate candidate for the 2019 federal election.

This article was an entry in the Healesville and Upper Yarra Greens’ essay contest.

Hero image: Pexels.

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