Home Health Why closing China’s “wet markets” could be a terrible mistake

Why closing China’s “wet markets” could be a terrible mistake


As new cases of COVID-19 in China continue to decline, thousands of people have begun to return to controversial wet markets across the country.

The city of Wuhan, which was considered the zero site for the virus outbreak, began to reopen after being put into strict two-month closure.

The virus was discovered in December and is believed to have originated in a market in the city where wild animals were sold for human consumption.

At the end of 2019, a new coronavirus appeared – now officially known as Covid-19 – appeared in Wuhan, China. Despite the quarantine imposed by the Chinese authorities, it subsequently spread to South Korea and Japan and then to Iran and Italy. So far, at least 80,000 people became infected, nearly 2,700 deaths.

As anthropologists who have long worked on diseases that spread from animals to humans (zoonoses) in China, our study can provide insight into the unfolding crisis. It is likely that this new form of coronavirus, which causes pneumonia – in some cases fatal – appeared as a result of zoonotic spread, the “jump” of the virus from non-human animals to humans, in early December 2019. Chinese scientists traced a potential source of the virus in the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, which was visited by 27 of the initial cluster of 41 hospitalized patients (but not the first registered patient).

The market sold much more than seafood, including a number of wild animals. And scientists suspect that the virus “jumped” to humans from one of the species of wild animals sold on the market. Contrary to the previous hypothesis that the virus originated in snakescurrent genetic evidence suggests the emergence in batswhich are less commonly sold in Chinese markets but are believed to be a reservoir for animals for many infectious diseases transmitted to humans. Wuhan closed and disinfected the market on January 1, and China imposed a temporary ban on all wildlife trade on January 22.

In connection with the coronavirus epidemic, global media about China’s live animal markets themselves have gone viral. A New York Times articlefor example, deliberately described China’s “omnivorous” markets in a way that would be aesthetically unacceptable to its Western audience (whole plucked chickens with attached heads and beaks), as well as a range of wildlife selected to shock the reader:

“Live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.”

But the emphasis on consuming exotic foods in China is frequent relies on Orientalismand in some cases there is with a hint of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Creating moral panic

Media reports undermine the epidemiological need to know which species are actually contained in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and how often. calling for a permanent ban or repeal these “wet markets”. Such reports are often based on editing images from various Chinese markets with little information on where and when they were taken, and without acknowledging significant differences in cuisine in different regions of the country.

These images convey a sense of aversion to Chinese eating habits and at the same time reflect the fear of the interconnection of two types of “appearance” in China: viral appearance and economic emergence.

Anthropologists have discussed in some detail how the Chinese model of development (China’s economic emergence in the 21st century) was perceived in the West both a threat, both politically and culturally: China’s economic development because of its rapid nature and the competition it could create for US or EU economies; and culturally, because reforms seem incompatible with Western expectations of modernization. In short, instead of China adapting to capitalism, capitalism (in China) is adapting to China.

In the 21st century, the Chinese economy has developed. Радиокафка / Shutterstock

Significant in this process is the consumption of food in China. While Chinese consumers have embraced supermarkets and packaged products, China’s economic development has not led to the demise of Chinese forms of consumption such as desire “Warm meat”and has not introduced European and American cultural norms as to what can be eaten and what cannot.

In the Western media, “wet markets” are portrayed as emblems of Chinese otherness: chaotic versions of eastern bazaars, illegal areas where animals that cannot be eaten are sold for food and where things should not be mixed (seafood and poultry, snakes and cattle). This fuels synophobia and anxiety over the fact that anthropologists have long identified it as “irrelevant matter”: a symbolic system of pollution through which prohibitions and prescriptions are kept as to which products or products can be combined.

This image is very erroneous not only because it draws on Western perceptions of what can and cannot be eaten, and which reflects the current form of Chinese trade and food consumption as “traditional,” but more practical because it misrepresents material and the economic reality of these markets.

Diversity of markets

In fact, most seafood, livestock and wholesale markets in China contain much less exotic tariffs. A huge variety of different types of markets are intricately combined under the term “wet market”. the term that arose in Hong Kong and Singapore in English to distinguish markets where fresh meat and products are sold from “dry” markets where packaged and durable goods such as textiles are sold.

Today, there are several types of “wet markets”.with differences that are often crucial to accurately assess the risk they pose to viruses: scale (wholesale or retail), products (live animals, only slaughtered meat and fresh vegetables, only live seafood; animals only domestic or Where markets do contain what many Western media portray as “wild animals”, most of them are actually bred and raised in captivity, such as ducks, frogs or snakes. from the wild for sale.

The struggle of Chinese farmers

What is perhaps most immersed in the discussion of Chinese wet markets is the perspective of farmers, producers and sellers. Although media reports often surprise the consumption of wildlife, little is said about why farmers produce them. As Lyle Fernley learned during field research with a wild goose-swan (dayan) farmers in Jiangxi Province, two factors led most farmers to breeding wild geese in the late 1990s: the ability to meet consumer demand without illegal poaching from the wild and as a way to produce higher value at a time when small farmers in rural areas faced an increase economic pressure from major industrial food producers.

During the market reforms in China after Mao, which began in 1978, collective farm land was redistributed among individual households, leading to an explosion in the number of small farmers known as “specialized” (juanyehu) because they focus on certain marketable crops or animals, including chickens, ducks or pigs. But in the 1990s, China made a “second leap” in expanding agricultural production. “Enterprises with large capital” (Longtou Qiye) – conglomerates of industrial food production – built integrated supply chains, often focused on slaughterhouses and processing plants, as well as hired livestock under contracts to farmers engaged in households.

After Mao, agriculture in China changed rapidly. Trekandshoot / Shutterstock

After the livestock revolution

This was followed by a huge consolidation as independent smallholders gradually pushed out of animal husbandry, especially in areas such as pork or poultry because prices fell too low and the cost of materials rose. Animal diseases, such as Newcastle disease and swine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, have also played a role in expulsion of smallholders from these sectors. Unable to survive as independent smallholders, many farmers faced a cardinal choice: engage in agriculture under a contract with an industrial food conglomerate or abandon the cultivation of pork or poultry altogether.

Some farmers have discovered a third way by deciding to grow local breeds and wildlife that could be sold at higher profits in niche markets. Many of these species were less susceptible to disease than the main animal, often simply as a result of growing fewer. Although the price of wild animals is higher compared to pets led to faith that its consumption “is a dietary choice, not a low-income one,” for farmers the story is different: wildlife breeding can be a path to a stable income if it remains a struggle for a living at the expense of land in rural China.

The variety of markets grouped under the term “wet markets,” similar to wildlife farming, provided important livelihoods for independent smallholder farmers. These markets often also have informal supply chains that allow smallholders to transport animals to market without the involvement of large food companies that own slaughterhouses and control contracts with supermarkets. But while informal, this does not mean that such markets are unregulated. The Study of Christ Linteris recorded regular inspections markets of “wet markets” by the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and municipal health authorities, which began after the 2003 SARS epidemic.

“Wet markets” are an integral part of the Chinese market and Chinese public life. And based on recent data showing a significant number of early cases of coronavirus infection without reference to the Huangyan Seafood Market, several infectious disease experts have questioned whether the market is at all a source of new coronavirus. In any case, although temporarily closing them down and stopping wildlife trade has benefits when it comes to disease prevention, the permanent closure or abolition of “wet markets” will have a huge and unpredictable impact on daily life and well-being in China.

The constant closure of “wet markets” will affect food consumption patterns in unknown ways, but potentially harmful to public health. This would deprive Chinese consumers of the food sector accounts for 30-59% of their food stocks. Due to the large number of farmers, traders and consumers involved, the abolition of “wet markets” is also likely to lead to the explosion of an uncontrolled black market, as it was when such a ban was made in 2003 in response to SARS. , and in 2013-14, in response to bird flu H7N9.

This would pose a much greater risk to public and global health than the legal and regulated markets for live animals in China today. And the markets for live poultry and livestock have long served an important “early warning” site. for viral surveillance, including in the United States.

“Wet markets” in China require more scientific and evidence-based regulation rather than abolition and clandestine drive.


Well Christ Linterissenior lecturer, anthropologist, University of St Andrews, and Scotland Lyle FernleyAssociate Professor, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)


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