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A wet market in Hong Kong on February 25.
Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

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The coronavirus likely came from China’s wet markets. They’re reopening anyway.

Should wet markets be banned? It’s more complicated than it seems.

Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Scientists who specialize in emerging infectious diseases think one possible place the novel coronavirus may have jumped from animals to humans was at one of China’s wet markets, places where live animals are often slaughtered and sold for human consumption — including, in some cases, wildlife like bats and pangolins.

After the outbreak of the Covid-19 disease, China temporarily closed down the wet markets. In February, it also banned the sale of wildlife for consumption, making it illegal to sell wild animals (but not common live animals such as chickens or fish) as food.

Now, the country is reopening some of its wet markets — even as the global uproar over them is reaching a crescendo. Although the ban on selling wildlife remains in effect at the markets, the move is still controversial, and a growing chorus of experts is calling for a permanent ban on the markets in China and beyond.

“I think we should shut down those things right away,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said of wet markets in an April 3 television interview. “It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down.”

The United Nations’ biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, shared that perspective. In fact, she appeared to want to ban the sale of all live animals, not just wild ones. “It would be good to ban the live animal markets,” she said in an April 6 interview with the Guardian. “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”

A wet market closed for disinfection during a “movement control order” to combat the Covid-19 outbreak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 25.
Mohd Daud/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A bipartisan group of more than 60 US lawmakers also called for a ban on wet markets in an April 8 letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health, and the UN. “Market vendors cage animals of different species in close proximity, where the animals are likely to urinate, defecate, and potentially bleed or salivate on the animals below them,” the lawmakers wrote, explaining why the markets create the perfect conditions for pathogens to jump between animal species and then to humans.

Meanwhile, a new survey conducted by GlobeScan for the World Wildlife Fund asked 5,000 participants from Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam what they think about markets that sell wildlife (as some, but not all, wet markets do). It found that 93 percent of respondents were likely to support action by their governments to eliminate illegal and unregulated wildlife markets. And 84 percent said they were unlikely or very unlikely to buy wildlife products in the future.

But the campaign to shut down these markets is more complicated than it seems. Part of the problem is one of definition. China has some open-air markets that sell only slaughtered animals and produce; some that sell commonly eaten live animals like chickens; and some that sell wild animals like bats.

Many people conflate all these under the heading “wet market.” But there are gradations here, and they represent different levels of risk for zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). There is some zoonotic risk anytime live animals are kept in close quarters, but the danger may be especially pronounced with wild animals; their pathogens are ones to which we haven’t had the chance to develop immunity.

Another issue is that there are socioeconomic as well as cultural factors to consider. Some experts caution that millions of low-income people would lose access to cheap sources of food, and many farmers would lose out on needed income, in the case of an all-out ban on wet markets.

These nuances are crucial to understanding why a permanent ban keeps proving elusive, even though a Chinese wet market carrying live animals was also linked to the 2003 SARS outbreak, and even though we all desperately want to prevent future pandemics.

China’s wet markets, explained

Let’s get two things straight up front. First, wet markets aren’t unique to China. They’re common in many parts of the world, including several Asian, African, and Latin American countries. But because the coronavirus originated in China, we’ll focus on the markets there.

Second, wet markets and wildlife markets aren’t synonymous, though they’re often used interchangeably. This semantic slippage is actually driving a lot of the confusion in the debate about whether to ban all wet markets.

A seafood vendor talks to a customer at a wet market in Shanghai, China, on February 13.
Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

One recent study offered this very clear definition of wet markets: “A typical wet market is a partially open commercial complex with vending stalls organized in rows; they often have slippery floors and narrow aisles along which independent vendors primarily sell ‘wet’ items such as meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and fruits.”

Note that there’s nothing about wildlife in this definition. That’s because a wet market doesn’t necessarily include “exotic” wild animals. According to Christos Lynteris and Lyle Fearnley, two anthropologists who study disease in China, the disproportionate focus on “exotic” food consumption is often tinged with Orientalism and anti-Chinese sentiment:

In Western media, “wet markets” are portrayed as emblems of Chinese otherness: chaotic versions of oriental bazaars, lawless areas where animals that should not be eaten are sold as food, and where what should not be mingled comes together (seafood and poultry, serpents and cattle). This fuels Sinophobia.

In reality, most seafood, live animal and wholesale markets in China contain far less exotic fare. An enormous variety of different kinds of market are confusingly lumped within the term “wet market,” a term that originated in Hong Kong and Singapore English to distinguish markets selling fresh meat and produce from “dry” markets selling packaged and durable goods such as textiles.

Among today’s wet markets, you’ll find some that sell no live animals whatsoever, just slaughtered animals and produce; some that carry common live animals like chickens or fish; and some that sell wildlife like bats and snakes.

While US lawmakers and other public figures talk about wanting to ban wet markets writ large, what they seem to really want to ban is the sale of wild animals — or perhaps any live animals — that sometimes occurs there. (Presumably they would have no problem with the wet markets that carry only slaughtered meat and produce; after all, the US is full of such markets.)

But in China, the wet markets are culturally treasured places, and not only because they are sources of affordable fresh food. For some, they also recall a vibrant and natural way of life, one that can’t be found in modern supermarket chains. Here’s how one man explained his love of the markets in a study:

Strolling at wet markets is my way of relaxation after exhausted workdays. I like wet markets because it has Yanhuoqi ... a sense of being alive. You cannot escape from the strong feeling of yanhuoqi in wet markets because you are always surrounded by diverse, vibrant foods, throngs of shoppers, and the loud voices of talking and vendor hawking. Everything comes alive in the market. Sitting in the office, I have no sense of season. The seasonal, colorful, fresh food in wet markets tell me the season.

Another man in the same study said he values the trust between food vendors and consumers, which gives him the sense of belonging to a community and assures him of the food’s freshness:

I have purchased pork nearly every day from the same pork vendor. We are acquaintances. He greets me every morning. He is very trustworthy. I know that he chose pigs from small farms in the nearby countryside. His pork is much fresher, more tender, and moister than the others.

Bearing in mind this culinary culture and how it helps people feel connected to their food sources and each other, the question is: Would an all-out ban on China’s wet markets make any more sense than an all-out ban on America’s farmers markets?

The problem with a total ban on wet markets

Experts disagree about exactly how far a ban should extend. Some say we need to ban just the sale of wild animals, while others say we need to ban all live animals from being slaughtered and sold in close quarters. But experts tend to agree that any responsible course of action will be more complex than simply banning wet markets altogether.

Deborah Cao, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and a leading scholar on Asian animal welfare, said wet markets in China are a lot like farmers markets in the US, but with one difference: Far more people get their food from wet markets.

Stalls inside a wet market are covered in plastic to enforce social distancing in Las Piñas, Philippines, on March 30.
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

“The food markets are open again, as they are part of life there. It is not possible to close down all the food markets,” Cao said. But she added that China can and should permanently ban stalls selling wildlife within the markets. She said she’d ideally also like to see a ban on all live animals there, since commonly eaten animals like chickens can also spread disease, but conceded that this “may be difficult in rural areas at the moment.”

Lynteris and Fearnley, the anthropologists, likewise argued that a permanent shutdown would do more harm than good, at least in China:

It would deprive Chinese consumers of a food sector that accounts for 30-59 percent of their food supplies. Due to the large number of farmers, traders, and consumers involved, the abolition of “wet markets” is also likely to lead to an explosion of an uncontrollable black market, as it did when such a ban was attempted in 2003, in response to SARS, as well as in 2013-14, in response to avian influenza H7N9.

This would involve enormously greater risk to public and global health than the legal and regulated live animal markets in China today. … What “wet markets” in China require is more scientific and evidence-based regulation, rather than being abolished and driven underground.

Although Mrema, the UN’s biodiversity chief, said “it would be good to ban the live animal markets,” she also warned it would need to be done delicately: “You have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people. So 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.”

It was out of economic necessity that some Chinese farmers began to breed wild animals in recent decades. As they struggled to live off the land, they discovered that they could supplement their income by turning to niche markets.

But Peter Li, an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, said it would be possible to safeguard people’s income security while banning the sale of wildlife in Chinese wet markets.

“People who work in the wildlife industry represent a small percentage of China’s enormous labor force. And the majority of people working in wildlife trade also do something else,” Li said, adding that traders who are negatively affected by a ban should be given financial subsidies to ease the transition to other kinds of work. “When people stop working in these markets, they should get some help from the government.” That could make a surge in illegal trade less likely.

The role of wildlife in Chinese traditional medicine

“While China has banned the trade and consumption of wild animals in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak,” notes the US lawmakers’ letter to the WHO and the UN, “there are significant loopholes relating to the current legal trade of wildlife for medicinal purposes.”

The lawmakers’ letter sounds a note of frustration about the fact that the Chinese government has exempted wildlife for traditional medicine from its ban. It’s easy to understand their annoyance. China adopted a similar approach after the 2003 SARS outbreak but eased restrictions once the outbreak was under control; 17 years later, things are right back where they started, but this time with a disease that’s killing even more people.

In recent years, wildlife products — like the scales of the endangered pangolin — have become popular among a small (but rich and powerful) minority in China. Breeders have hyped the products’ supposed health benefits, citing ancient Chinese texts that say they make people more robust, virile, and free of disease.

Cao called these “bogus claims of medicinal or healing or nutritional benefit without scientific basis.” She said the sale of wild animals for this purpose should absolutely be stopped.

Li emphasized that Westerners shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Chinese consumers must be allowed access to wildlife products because it’s part of their ancient culture. While there are classic Chinese texts extolling the healing properties of certain wildlife products, it’s not as though millions of people have been reading these texts and clamoring for such products of their own accord.

Instead, “the demand for wildlife products has been created by the industry for commercial purposes, for profit. Traditional Chinese medicine has been used,” Li said. “I have never seen a document by Chinese consumers telling the government, ‘Please, farm tigers!’ But I have seen documents by wildlife breeders telling the government, ‘Let us farm these animals so we can sell these products.’”

Will China keep its ban on wildlife sales?

The sale of wildlife in wet markets creates a serious risk of pandemics because it forces together animal species that would not encounter each other under ordinary circumstances, and then puts human beings in contact with these animals’ pathogens, to which we haven’t had the chance to develop any immunity. Many experts and even wet market aficionados now agree that the risk to human health is just too great.

In theory, it should be possible for China to permanently ban the sale of wildlife in wet markets without endangering many people’s food security, income security, and valued culinary culture by banning wet markets altogether.

But that would require the government to stop kowtowing to the wildlife farming industry, which has immense lobbying power, Li said.

For now, China is still banning sales of wildlife, with the exception of sales for medicinal purposes. What remains to be seen is whether, as in the case of the SARS outbreak, the government will lift this restriction after the world gets Covid-19 under control — or whether it will finally learn its lesson.

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