Covid-19: Calls For Ban On Wet Markets Sparks Renewed Urgency For Environmental Reform

Over the past week, a host of wildlife organisations across the globe have joined the UN in urging for a global crackdown on ‘wet markets’ and the illegal wildlife trade, in light of evidence that attributes the outbreak of Covid-19 to such practices. In a statement on 6th April, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted the direct link between the current health crisis and the catastrophic environmental impact of human activity on the planet. UNEP has called for immediate action to halt the destruction of habitats and ecosystems in order to prevent future pandemics.

On 4th April, some 240 wildlife charities signed an open letter to the World Health Organization calling on it to place a ban on wildlife markets that sell live and dead animals, such as the one in Wuhan, China, where Covid-19 is thought to have originated. The groups claim that a ban on these ‘wet markets’ will limit the risk of future outbreaks. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, joined this call for a global ban on wet markets. However, speaking to the Guardian last week, Mrema cautioned that we must take into account that some communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.

Mrema is right to point out that a universal ban may be counter-productive in countries where people depend upon the wildlife trade, as it risks opening up illegal trading of wild animals which Mrema argues is already leading to the “brink of extinction” for some species. Alternatives must be put in place to ensure that the ban does not have detrimental effects on poor communities, while in the meantime, hygiene requirements need to be implemented in all markets where live animals are sold. Nevertheless, with much evidence pointing to live markets as the cause of the outbreak, it is right that organisations globally are protesting against these dangerous practices.

This comes after leading experts, along with the World Health Organisation, have suggested that an animal is likely the cause of the virus, leading to a temporary ban in China on wildlife markets where live animals are kept in small, often filthy, cages. According to UNEP, one infectious disease arises in humans every four months, and 75% of these are zoonotic, i.e. viruses originating from the transfer from animals to humans. They are responsible for over two million human deaths each year. The risk of zoonotic disease transmission is said to be heightened by the proximity of animals and humans in wet markets.

However, the temporary ban on wet markets will only decrease, not eliminate, the threat of future pandemics. Environmental experts have pointed to the need to address the wider problem, arguing that we must stop the destruction of habitats in order to protect biodiversity and prevent the spread of pathogens. Only long-term systemic shifts will enable us to salvage the health of both humanity and the planet following this crisis. UNEP chief Inger Andersen summarised this in a recent statement, in which she emphasised that “The better we manage nature, the better we manage human health.” We can no longer ignore the clear link between the environment and human health, and we must ensure that permanent reforms are ready to be put into place in the aftermath of the crisis, so that we can ‘build back better’ and secure a brighter future for our planet.