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The Maastricht Diplomat

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CoViD-19's New Coat?

Who would have thought that cute animals, such as minks, would make 2020 even worse?How do they impact our health and businesses?

Whilst long-term measures are applied to counter the spread of COVID-19, which is currently being studied thoroughly by various scientists, unforeseen variables complicate the combat against the virus. Unfortunately, some variables present themselves as interspecies transmissions between humans and highly susceptible animals for the virus, namely, the mink.

As citizens from fur-producing countries live and work in close proximity to minks, due to the existence of mink breeding farms and the thriving fur trade, the spread and mutation of mink-related COVID-19 cases pose major threats to our overall health and the notion that we possibly leave our houses sometime soon. In Denmark alone, hundreds have been confirmed to have contracted the new COVID-19 variant from interactions with the 200 infected mink farms in the country. Evidently, such spread is concerning due to two primary implications. First, it is uncertain if the upcoming vaccine functions in eliminating the new COVID-19 variant which evolved through minks. Secondly, our governments are obligated to take additional safety measures to combat this spread.

As mentioned prior, the minks are nearly exclusively farmed for their pelts - which the contaminated farms are no longer allowed to sell. Consequently, the international fur trade and fur fashion are exposed to extreme losses and a potential hit - which could destroy the industry. To what extent does the discovery of the mink-related COVID-19 variant lead to the potential downfall of an industry?

Before addressing the issue at hand, it is important to investigate why the mink variant is concerning in the first place. Well, like any virus, the spread towards other species permits it to evolve in unpredictable manners. This was observed in modern diseases such as AIDS which came from chimpanzees, the flu from pigs and chicken and measles from cattle. In fact, about 60% of modern diseases came from animals, especially domesticated ones. As discussed by historian Jared Diamond, viruses started out by presenting themselves in small organisms, such as rat fleas, and adapting in the hosts. This allows them to transfer to bigger organisms, such as rats and dogs, until humans would be affected. However, the viruses have biologically armed themselves and automatically cut out unnecessary links, such as the aforementioned animals, to allow themselves to latch onto humans. From Wuhan to Copenhagen, this behaviour is observed and allows for the deadly evolution of a virus in proximity with various species. The proposed vaccines by Pfizer and BioNtech target a specific aspect of the virus. The virus constantly makes copies of itself and builds an inner coat for its genetic coat which stays unaltered whilst the outer layer is covered by spikes. These spikes are essential during mutations because they hold the various (dangerous) characteristics of the virus. The mink variant unfortunately has very different spikes which current vaccines have not proven to be able to counter. Only the future can assess this vaccination fear.

To understand the complexity of the virus’ spread, let us describe the functioning of mink farms and investigate how COVID-19 has impacted said farms. As of November 2020, 6 pelt-producing countries have confirmed COVID-19 cases in mink farms. Namely, the United States, Spain, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. The Danish mink farm operations are by far the largest suppliers in the industry accounting for 40% of the world’s production, being sold from Switzerland to China, and contributing a whopping 1-2% to the Danish GDP. In all farms, the animals are propped into tiny cages, ranging from 2.000-20.000 minks. This permits the existence of breeding grounds for diseases and, in case of an animal breaking out, causing virus spreading to humans in villages and cities.Denmark has had major difficulties in handling the spread of the new COVID-19 mink variant, in compensating mink farmers and in determining the future of the mink farms.

Currently, mink farmers are forced to halt all the farm’s activity if the farm has contaminations. To combat the spread of the virus in Denmark, the government announced that 17 million minks would be “culled”. The owners are forced to stuff that number of minks in small boxes which pump suffocating CO2-gas, in the name of the Danish population’s safety. Claimed to be humane, this tactic does not always function since some minks survive the initial gassing, forcing owners to snap their necks to finish them. The ‘culling plan’ is also being executed in the Netherlands, the country with the second most COVID-19 mink variant cases. As farmers in both fur-producing countries fear unemployment, they aim to combat the government's measures. However, the governments have already agreed to move the introduction of a fur trade ban closer to the beginning of 2021 instead of 2024. This is clearly going to be a difficult period for farmers having to accept the reality of the pandemic’s impacts and directly affects the supply for a market with overwhelming demand.

As Humane Society International reports, European mink fur is popular in Switzerland, Scandinavia, and especially China. Interestingly enough, about 90% of European mink fur demand originates from provinces in North-eastern China, such as Heilongjiang and Jilin. The international demand largely focuses on this region which is arguably the mecca for the sales aspect of the mink fur trade. Mink-based clothing, such as coats and footwear, are considered luxury fashion products which elevate one's elite status in Chinese society. Indeed, Chinese citizens spend months-worth salaries to buy culturally, and class-based, significant status symbols. Whilst numerous companies such as Gucci announced the elimination of their fur catalogues, Chinese demand is higher than ever and collectively makes up more than half of the world’s mink fur demand, dwarfing all other demands combined. This phenomenon has been on a constant growth in China since the last 10 years, making the sudden drop in mink fur supply due to COVID-19 worrying for Chinese society. Therefore, fur trade lobbyists are attempting to boost this supply by appealing to various state governments that, regardless of the COVID-19 implications, mink fur sales should continue as usual.

Research has concluded that fur consumption may be reduced through various manners. Most importantly, a dissociation has to be made in Chinese society regarding fur as an elite symbol. The vast majority of fur-wearing citizens are millennials (77.5%) who attempt to elevate themselves in Chinese society. Obviously, changing a trend is easier said than done. Yet, education regarding the fur industry may assist in reducing demand. A circulating 2005 video of a raccoon dog being skinned alive, and other similar reports, have already caused a progressive drop in the market due to public disgust. Considering only about a quarter of consumers wear fur as to keep warm, it is reasonable to assume that education can largely change a cultural element which has already been on the decline. Also, another 27% of consumers simply never noticed wearing fur, or did not notice as they believed to be wearing faux fur. Educating these individuals about the realities of fur culture would further remove chunks out of the market. To learn more about China’s fur industry, click here.

The new realities of the mink-strain, including the danger of fur farming and consumption, display an opportunity to tackle the issue of the fur industry and the associated demand. This global pandemic permits a shift in the outlook on fur fashion in specific cultures, such as the North-eastern Chinese one, which informs populations about the cruelty, dangers and societal irrelevance of fur fashion.

The pandemic certainly has rocked the world, including the fashion sector. With the overwhelming pressure from animal rights groups in combination with the pandemic, it is entirely possible that mink fur demand will be transformed to no longer encompass the cultural significance of owning such fur. In today’s day and age, there are alternatives to fur which protect us from the elements. It is therefore essential to reflect upon the concept of mink farms, due to health and humane issues, as to determine the industry’s significance in a post-pandemic society.


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