Only a fraction of the global population has been infected by COVID-19, but almost all of us are now dealing with the paralysis that comes with a pandemic.
Despite unprecedented circumstances and protective measures, there are some aspects of life that simply cannot be postponed, isolated at home or “socially distanced” - and one of these is the health of our animals.
We rely on livestock for a safe supply of milk, meat and eggs in our supermarkets, especially now that the supply chain is under distribution pressure, and we need our pets for comfort even more than usual.
So, while it is wise for governments to take strong actions in the face of a threat like COVID-19, it is also critical that these restrictions do not put at risk the veterinary services that protect animals.
Like people, animals will inevitably face the same, day-to-day health threats and illnesses that arise outside of a major disease outbreak, and like people, animals will suffer if they and veterinarians cannot access vital health supplies.
This is why national governments worldwide must treat veterinary medicines, along with human medicines, as “essential goods” that can continue to cross borders and reach those who need them, even in the throes of a pandemic.
The European Commission has led the way by including animal treatments in its guidelines on essential goods, and it now falls to national authorities in Europe and elsewhere to ensure that veterinary drugs can continue to reach those who need them.
For a start, veterinary medicines are crucial for pets, not just in an outbreak but every day. If a dog or cat falls ill, they will need to visit a veterinarian just like their owner would need to see a doctor if sick.
In some early reports, however, supplies of veterinary medicines were delayed or held up because of new transport restrictions imposed in the wake of the outbreak. But despite initial mixed messages, it has since been recognised that even in the grip of a pandemic, veterinary practices remain “key services” and can, and should, remain open for pets who fall unwell.
Securing access to animal health care is vital, but even more so in the fall-out of the COVID-19 outbreak, when many owners are facing extended periods of isolation, making healthy pets a lifeline for those living alone or at risk of loneliness.
Meanwhile, animal agriculture remains the lynchpin of our global food chain. Healthy livestock is needed now more than ever to provide safe, plentiful food. If farmers were unable to access routine vaccinations for their cattle, chicken or pigs, for example, they would be unable to meet food safety standards, meaning livestock cannot enter the food chain and is left susceptible to preventable diseases.
An outbreak of animal disease could further threaten the supply chain, leaving families with fewer options for protein, iron and other key nutrients. By recognising animal medicines as “essential goods,” as the UK has done, governments are helping livestock farmers continue to raise animals safely, not only protecting their own livelihoods but also an important source of food at a time of potential scarcity.
Finally, as we have seen with this outbreak of coronavirus in people, animal and human health are intrinsically linked. It is vital to keep veterinarians equipped with all the tools needed to do their jobs, to recognise their services as essential businesses, for the sake of animal health, human health and the livelihoods of veterinarians themselves.
In the short-term, veterinarians play an important role in caring for our food-producing animals and pets throughout the pandemic, and they need the right medicines and equipment to do this.
But in the longer term, veterinarians are also on the frontline of global health and controlling future outbreaks of animal-borne diseases. Government support that allows veterinarians to stay in business now will ensure we do not risk losing their vital expertise and skills.
Across the animal medicines industry, we are working to guarantee that veterinary medicines continue to reach veterinarians, farmers and pet owners during this crisis, so they may provide proper care to animals, while also protecting employees and reducing the risk of further disease spread.
What is clear is that we simply cannot afford to compromise on animal health if we are to safeguard human health in this crisis.
Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is the Executive Director of HealthforAnimals, a global NGO representing the animal health sector.
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