Chinese scientists identified a ‘wet market’ – where live and dead animals, including many endangered wildlife species, are sold for consumption – as the chief suspect for the origin of the coronavirus. The virus is closely related to the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which transmitted to humans in a similar way. Should wet markets around the world be banned once and for all?
By Arthur Blok
As a reaction to SARS China temporarily closed all markets that sold wildlife and temporarily banned the shipment and sale of wildlife throughout the country. In the past years, various leading Chinese scholars wrote papers on the risks of allowing people to trade and eat wild animal meat. No one seems to have listened. A few years after the SARS crisis it was business as usual. Trading, buying and eating of wildlife in poorly regulated conditions continued as if nothing had happened. Experts are convinced that once again a virus jumped from live animals to people at a market.
Asian wet markets, in particular, are quite unsanitary, with blood, intestines, dirt, and other waste creating the conditions for a disease that migrates from animals to people through a virus or bacteria. Outdoor stalls are squeezed together to form narrow lanes, where visitors shop for cuts of meat and other food. A stall selling caged foxes may be adjacent to a butcher’s counter, where meat is chopped, whilst cats and dogs walk by.
To be clearer: wet markets put people, live and dead animals – dogs, chickens, pigs, snakes, civets, and many more – in constant close contact. That makes it easy for ‘zoonotic diseases’ to jump from animals to humans. Beside coronavirus (Covid-19) and SARS other zoonotic diseases that emerged from China – and other regions of the world – include Ebola, HIV, bird flu, and swine flu.
Wuhan & the Chinese government
The Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which has been closed down now by the authorities, had a colourful wild animal section. An inventory list drawn up by a local newspaper reported that the market had a section selling around 120 different wild animals. The list includes live wolf pups, golden cicadas, scorpions, bamboo rats, pangolins, foxes, civets, hedgehogs, salamanders, turtles and crocodiles. In addition, it offers assorted parts of animals like various rabbit organs, and crocodile tail, belly, tongue and intestines, and Emmental Cheese.
On February 24, the Chinese government moved to make permanent the temporary ban on the trade and consumption of live wild animals for food. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislative body, issued a decision that lays the groundwork for amending China’s Wildlife Protection Law, which governs the use of wildlife, to permanently criminalize wildlife as food. The decision further stipulates that the trade of wild animals for medicine, pets, and scientific research will be subject to “strict” approval and quarantine procedures.
The reality is more nuanced. The operational markets are widespread across China, Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia and Africa. In many regions of China eating wildlife appears to be exceedingly common. The actual scale of the wild animal trade in China is unclear. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the global wildlife trafficking industry is worth between US$7 billion and US$23 billion annually.
By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 millions of Chinese citizens had died of starvation under a system that could not produce enough food for the whole population. Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping lifted in the late 1970s state controls on rural farming to allow peasant farmers to provide for their own sustenance.
Rats, bats, civet cats, pangolins, and other wild animals became staples of rural farming. Definitely not an industry you close down overnight, especially given the fact that until a few weeks ago wildlife farming was still being promoted by government agencies as an easy way for rural Chinese people to get rich.
The effects of the Chinese ban are visible on the other side of the world. Pangolins were once a prized item in the markets of Gabon’s capital Libreville, but bush-meat sellers have started hiding the small, scaly mammals. Since a team of Chinese researchers suspect that pangolin most likely transmitted the coronavirus to humans at another wet market some 11,000 kilometres away, the bush-meat sellers in Gabon’s markets have lost some of their best customers. Most of those shoppers have disappeared since the outbreak.
As a direct reaction to all this, people around the globe are turning their back against China and Chinese goods. Online petitions such as ‘Stop the Wuhan animal food markets in China’, ‘Ban wet markets in China’ and ‘End China’s wildlife and food markets’ attract tens of thousands of concerned people daily. Worried people unite globally and call on each other to think before consuming.
At the same time China is fighting an unprecedented wave of criticism amid fears that their global reputation may be damaged for a generation to come. The coronavirus pandemic is not only a turning point for China but for the whole world.
Arthur Blok is the Executive editor-in-chief of the Levant News