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COVID-19 has swept through the world and taken with it over 35,000 people while infecting over 700,000. Despite China’s strict quarantine measures, the virus spread worldwide quickly, affecting some Western countries with extraordinary intensity, Italy, the UK, and the US hosting the most active cases.
But where does this virus come from?
Coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases, meaning their original source is animals. Viruses, as such, have a tendency to jump from animals to humans, which is most likely the case with the novel coronavirus. Chinese authorities linked the source of the disease to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which is set to the origin of the COVID-19.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is a ‘wet market,’ which means it sells perishable goods, such as meat, fish, produce, etc. Wet markets are common all over the world, but what’s different about Asian wet markets is that they sell much more than seafood. Chinese wet markets mare often considered as a terrifying site for westerns are they sell a selection of both dead and alive wild animals like badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, wolf cubs, snakes, turtles, and more.
Initially, scientists believed that the virus jumped from snakes, then bats, and eventually, pangolins were also hypothesized for being the original host. Recent studies suggest that Patient Zero of COVID-19 was not exposed to the market, which suggests that the virus could have originated elsewhere and been transported to the market where it was able to thrive and even mutate. In such an environment, the virus could jump from human to animal and back.
On January 1st, the Huanan market was closed disinfected, while China issued a temporary ban on selling wildlife.
The Wild West
When gruesome images of wet markets surfaced on the internet in the wake of the pandemic, the western audience watched in shock. The gruesome images were deemed unacceptable and raised a fair amount of anti-Chinese sentiment and resentment of the Oriental culture as well as its traditions.
In western media, wet markets are portrayed as lawless bazaars that sell animals that should not be sold, let alone eaten. The reality is fairly different. Most wholesales markets in China do not sell exotic animals. The term ‘wet markets’ is often abused in that understanding. The majority of these markets contain fresh meat, seafood, and produce. Oriental cuisine contains animals that are deemed inappropriate to eat in the West, such as frogs, snacks, etc. Those animals are usually bred and farmed in captivity, although there is a portion of wild animals that are indeed poached.
Demand to permanently abolish wet markets arose as the world read and watched macabre images of dead animals surrounded by the live ones, although little information was given on where those images were actually taken. The media started creating moral panic as well as a sense of disgust towards the eating habits of the Chinese.
China has often been perceived as a threat by the West. Its rapid economic emergence in the 21st century has created unease for the Western world and competition for the US and EU economies. China has a strange model in place: with a socialist government at hand. The country has adopted capitalism.
Omit or regulate?
As talks of omitted wet markets arose, many started to question why Chinese farms produce these specific animals for consumption. In the late 90s, when illegal poaching came into place, an opportunity arose for farmers to meet consumer demand. All-over China, small rural farmers started breeding various animals in order to cope with the pressure that came from large industrial food producers.
Small, independent farmers were driven out of sectors like pork or poultry, which is what leads to the production of entirely different animals. Many farmers turned to breed wild animals to sell in niche markets in order to survive the struggle. When China introduced the ban, many farmers ended up with little to no income at all.
Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested that a permanent ban is on its way, and mentioned that “it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crackdown on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.”
China promised that it would revise its wildlife protection laws in order to “toughen the crackdown on wildlife trafficking,” stating that “the supervision, inspection and law enforcement should be strengthened to ensure that wildlife trade markets are banned and closed.”
Experts believe that a permanent ban is essential; much Chinese support that the sale of wildlife should be eradicated. Global wildlife organizations support this notion “Preventing future zoonotic outbreaks are not about targeting one species — like pangolins, bats, and snakes — but taking strong actions to ban wet markets trading in wildlife and broadly strengthening wildlife laws and regulations,” said the executive director of Wildlife Conservation Society Global Health Program.
China is a country that has enforced powerful bans to protect its nation previously and undoubtedly will follow the same steps for the greater good of their population.
The question is, what will happen to the farmers?