The world’s working horses and donkeys are likely to pay a long-term price in the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to researchers.
There are estimated to be between 100 million and 112 million working equids, allied to the lives of 600 million people, many of whom are poor.
The working equid community includes some of the world’s most marginalised people, who rely on animals for their daily lives and livelihoods.
The pandemic was declared internationally on March 11 last year. Countries have been impacted variably, depending on the different disease control measures imposed.
Researchers Isabella Wild, Amy Gedge, Jessica Burridge and John Burford, in a paper just published in the journal Animals, set out to assess the pandemic’s impact on the world’s working equid community.
They developed a multi-language survey involving 38 predominantly closed questions, with interviews carried out toward the end of last year, either face-to-face, over the telephone, or online.
In all, there were 1530 respondents, all of whom received support from equid welfare projects across 14 low or middle-income countries.
At the time of the survey, 57% of respondents reported that their equids were working less, and 76% reported a reduced monthly income from their working animals.
Worryingly, 78% reported a fall in household income compared to pre-pandemic levels.
The costs of their animals’ upkeep remained the same for 58% of those surveyed, and 68% reported no change in the health of their equid.
“The main findings were that, compared to prior to the pandemic, equids were working less, individuals were receiving less income, with expenses staying the same or increasing,” the study team said.
“In the short term, different indicators show that the effect on equine welfare has been inconsistent.
“However, it is predicted that there will be negative long‐term impacts on human and equid welfare due to financial insecurity.” This, they said, needs to be monitored.
“It is clear from the results,” they said, “that the pandemic has had substantial effects on income within the working equid community.”
Discussing the inequality of the pandemic, the researchers said in lower‐income countries, people have fewer household savings or governmental safety nets, including compensation or income support to ease economic losses. For some, job security is poor.
Healthcare systems are much poorer, and essential items have proven to be in short supply.
Additional social issues, such as the worsening of food insecurity, are a growing concern, they said.
While vaccines provide hope, their procurement by lower and middle-income countries has been challenging.
“Animal welfare is facing considerable collateral damage from the pandemic,” the study team warned.
“The World Organisation for Animal Health predicts the economic recession may affect owners’ ability to afford feed and healthcare for their animals. This is a worry echoed in this study.”
Covid‐19 has already been shown to have a negative effect on equine welfare in high‐income countries, they said, with impacts on horse abandonment, equine businesses, equid management practices, and accessibility of care-related services.”
The authors said there should be follow‐up studies exploring the longer-term impact of the pandemic.
“The evolution of the Covid‐19 pandemic fundamentally demonstrates the importance of One Health approaches and the pandemic itself has One Welfare consequences.”
They said collaboration among animal welfare organisations, governments, and humanitarian bodies is needed to overcome deep‐rooted issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, involving the marginalised working equid community.
“There is an opportunity to learn from this situation, with the promotion of long‐lasting change. We must build back better and ensure that systems to protect the health and welfare of equids and their owners are resilient.”
Wild and Gedge are with the British-based charity World Horse Welfare; Burridge and Burford are with the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham.
Wild, I.; Gedge, A.; Burridge, J.; Burford, J. The Impact of COVID-19 on the Working Equid Community: Responses from 1530 Individuals Accessing NGO Support in 14 Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Animals 2021, 11, 1363. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051363