The term “wet markets” has been brought into public interest since a wet wildlife market in Wuhan, China was identified as the potential source of the COVID-19 outbreak in early December. The UN Biodiversity Chief, many U.S. Officials, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases called for their banning to avoid future pandemics.
Recently on April 23rd, at the virtual G20 meeting of Agricultural Ministers, Australia’s Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud called for international experts to launch an inspection on wet markets selling wildlife, urging the need for a global community to “work together with those nations that have these markets, to work with them to phase them out in a way that protects their food security but maintains the safety, the human risk and the biosecurity risk to everybody and to every animal on the planet.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasized the need for such an inquiry. China has rejected calls for an independent international inspection, with Chinese diplomat Chen Wen telling BBC that this demand was politically motivated. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron and British ministers said that this not a time for investigations or placing blame but for tackling the virus. There are currently 6,713 confirmed cases and 83 deaths in Australia, and 2.97 million confirmed cases globally with 207 thousand deaths.
“We must learn from COVID-19 on how we better manage and mitigate both human and animal biosecurity risks and to ignore wildlife wet markets in that assessment would be wrong,” Minister Littleproud said. He explained his recommended inspection route to “continue to work with our G20 partners, but also we intend to engage with the World Organization for Animal Health. They would be the independent body that could go and work within these wildlife wet markets, and make sure they get the science, and draw on other independent scientific experts to help them get the information we need.”
Littleproud emphasized that this was not a “witch hunt,” and it did not matter whether the markets were in China or any other nations. He clarified the distinction between wet markets and wet wildlife markets, addressing only the latter. Although the term “wet market” is associated with Southeast Asia, they are similar to Western farmers markets, selling seafood, poultry, and vegetables; and it cannot be assumed that a wet market necessarily includes exotic animals.
The COVID-19 outbreak reminded many of the 2003 SARS epidemic, a respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus suspected to have sourced from a wildlife market in Guangdong, where China had placed a temporary ban on wildlife trade. Similarly, China issued a temporary ban on all wild animal trade on January 22nd following the COVID-19 cases and is now reviewing its legislation to permanently restrict wildlife trade. More than 70% of human diseases spread from wild animals and wildlife markets where common and exotic animals and their bodily fluids mix and can potentially create unhygienic conditions, in which animals can incubate diseases that can then make the jump to humans.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, highlighted the importance of keeping in mind that China’s wildlife-farming industry employed more than 6 million people in 2016. Not just in China, but in low-income rural regions – particularly in Africa – millions are dependent on wild animals for their livelihoods. She said, “Unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.”
Similarly, Peter Li, a professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, said people’s incomes could be secured while banning wildlife trade if they receive financial subsidies from the government while they transition to other areas of work.
Anthropologists Christos Lynteris and Lyle Fearnley warned against the flawed Western portrayal of Chinese wet markets and media’s disproportionate focus on exotic animal consumption, arguing it often derives from Orientalism and anti-Chinese sentiment and can fuel Sinophobia. They said a wet market abolition can have unpredictable effects on everyday Chinese people; yet acknowledging the markets’ risk to human health, they argued similarly to Littlepround’s approach saying, “What ‘wet markets’ in China require is more scientific and evidence-based regulation.”
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