Why China Should Ban Wildlife Markets For Good Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

In China, the coronavirus tally has reached 20,438, killing 425 people as of Monday. When the quarantine was put in place on January 23, residents of Wuhan in the Hubei province scrambled in droves to supermarkets and pharmacies to stock up on supplies to survive the lockdown. 

While police were keeping vigil, masked workers sprayed disinfectants on the hands of customers as they entered stores. These panicked reactions could have been prevented if only the Chinese government had banned the functioning of open markets in the past. Primarily because Wuhan city's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is considered the source of the outbreak. 

Why Wildlife Markets Should Be Banned

This is not the first time the intermediate host was suspected to be a live animal sold at a Chinese wet market. About 17 years ago, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), emerged from a Chinese market selling civet cats, which originated from bats. 

Despite the health concerns, bats are associated with auspiciousness. The translation, phonetically of “bats”, resembles the word used to describe good fortune in China. Wild animals are sold in cages in wet markets because purchasing them is a symbol of wealth and due to the traditional belief that they are more nutritious than farmed animals. 

Given the dangers posed by the coronavirus and the many deaths that have occured, the Chinese government has not made the effort to close these markets permanently. Authorities probably do not want to hurt their farmers economically. Most importantly, proper classification of the term “wet markets” is needed to understand the scope of contamination. 

Wuhan Coronavirus Wuhan seafood market closed after the new coronavirus was detected there for the first time on January 1, 2020. SISTEMA 12/Wikimedia Commons

Authorities were negligent

In a recent interview with NPR, Zhenzhong Si, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, who studies food safety concerns in China, explained why municipal governments are instead encouraging more wet markets to open. 

“I want to emphasize that many Chinese municipal governments are actually supporting the development of new wet markets in the city because it's such an important source of fresh produce and meats for the majority of urban residents. It's also a part of the urban lifestyle,” Si explained. 

“Some people argue that it provides a space for socialization, you know, for people to talk to others. And a lot of people enjoy shopping at wet markets compared to supermarkets,” Si added, highlighting failed efforts to phase out wet markets systematically in the past by converting them to supermarkets in cities. “They tried this in 2002 but failed just because they were no longer able to provide fresh food at a cheaper price, so they lost their original customers.”

Trading of wildlife products is rampant

Officials can start with addressing concerns to China's National Forestry and Grassland Administration that legalizes the selling of 54 animals, reptiles and insects, such as chipmunks, ostriches and centipedes, among others. For now, a temporary ban has been enforced to control the outbreak. "Raising, transporting or selling all wild animal species is forbidden from the date of the announcement until the national epidemic situation is over," Chinese agencies said in a statement, as per the BBC.

Trading of wildlife products is a great source of revenue for the Chinese economy. As per the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the illegal trading of wildlife is worth $20 billion worldwide every year. Therefore, rampant trading of wildlife poses a major challenge to prevent more such outbreaks in the future that can spread from animals to humans. Simply banning wet markets might not help. 

"This health crisis must serve as a wake-up call for the need to end the unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts, as exotic pets, for food consumption and for their perceived medicinal value," WWF said in a statement.