Update (April 13, 2020): Since I wrote this article back in January, COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the globe. It has killed more than 100,000 people and sickened millions, while tanking the global economy. While most of the public’s attention has shifted away from the virus’s origin story, many of the dynamics I highlight in my article still hold true:
- We still don’t have definitive proof that the virus originated in the Huanan Seafood “Wet” Market. It most likely came from bats, but exactly how and when it spread to humans is still unclear.
- The belief that the pandemic started due to the butchering or consumption of “exotic” animals at a Wet Market, fuels anti-asian hate crimes.
- China is permanently banning the illegal wildlife trade (much of which occurs outside of a typical wet market). However, eliminating wet markets themselves would upend traditional food ways (providing the primary means of selling food for rural residents). In regards to the wildlife ban, there could be issues with compensating farmers and effectively enforcing the ban. Without either of these, the law foster the proliferation of more dangerous underground activity.
- It is also true that Chinese Medicine corporations and the Chinese Forestry Department provide institutional support for the wildlife trade. Thus the breeding and trading of wildlife exceeds the issue of wet markets and consumption of certain species.
- The trading and breeding of multiple species of wildlife does carry grave public health risks, which I don’t intend to downplay here.
- Anthony Bourdain appreciated the energy and dynamism of wet markets. I wish he were still around to educate the public.
The coronavirus outbreak is exposing America’s deep-rooted underbelly of anti-Asian racism. From teasing on the playground to stigmatization at the shopping mall, (many) Americans’ reaction to the outbreak reveals the extent to which they conceive of Chinese, like myself, as a monolith-devoid of individual humanity.
Perhaps the most disgraceful instance of racial hysterics has been the media’s portrayal of China’s live-animal (or “wet”) markets as an incubator of disease.
In China, a “wet market” denotes an ad hoc market where fresh meat and produce, rather than “dry” packaged goods, are sold. Because of the Chinese preference for freshly-slaughtered meat, animals are often displayed alive and butchered upon purchase.
Think of them like a cross between a farmer’s market and a petting zoo.
The coronavirus outbreak may have originated in the Huanan Seafood Market, a wet market in Wuhan. Since the outbreak, the American mass media have ominously portrayed these markets as alien and unsanitary.
A New York Times Article depicts China’s “Omnivorous Markets” (as if their customers were animal rather than human!) as purveyors of “unusual fare, including live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats…” The article notes that many blame the markets’ “culinary adventurism” for the epidemic.
Bloomberg News’ Headline demonizes wet markets as a “Breeding Ground” for viruses. The body text of the article highlights the fact that “shoppers mingle in narrow spaces with everything from live poultry to snakes” in the markets as “a key reason” for their culpability in spreading disease.
The New York Post‘s Paula Froelich does not even mince words in her writing. These “filthy markets” boast a “fetid stench,” she writes (based on experiences in unnamed third-world locations), akin to “the sweet and nauseating smell of death.”
The supposedly unsavory character of the wet markets leads Froelich to assert what the other authors imply: that the wet markets are a public health risk and should, therefore, be shut down for good.
Although this argument sounds logical on the surface, the lurid portrayal on which it relies draws on racially-motivated stereotypes about Chinese cuisine.
During the 19th-century, Chinese immigrants to America (who began arriving in the country during the California Gold Rush) encountered vicious discrimination from the country’s White majority. One area in which prejudice manifested was food.
White citizens decried the Chinatowns of western cities as “nuisances” because of the perceived “stench” emanating from their kitchens. White politicians regarded Chinese “coolies” as inferior based on their preference for rice over beef. And white newspapers obsessed over Chinese consumption of “unusual” animals like rats.
Although times have changed and sushi, larb and dim sum can now command Michelin stars, questions Asian-Americans receive about eating “dog” and stigmas around the smell of kimchi show that the “othering” of Asian food (and people) is very real. Sub-consciously or not, the media’s portrayal of live animal markets as an incubator for pandemics plays into this.
Moreover, the media’s blame of wet markets for the Coronavirus epidemic grossly oversimplifies the story. It is true that the Coronavirus likely originated in bats and, therefore, infected humans via an animal carrier. However, scientists have not affirmatively established the Huanan market as the site of the disease’s transmission. A study in the esteemed Lancet medical journal found that thirteen of the 41 initial Coronavirus cases were not linked to the market.
Suppose, however, that China’s wet markets do transmit the disease? Should we accept the media’s premise that the Chinese government should shut down the markets?
To me, it seems cynical at best to promote a crackdown on mom-and-pop enterprises by an authoritarian regime not hesitant to employ brutality. Many of the wild animal sales in “wet markets” sustain small farmers who would otherwise be decimated by big agribusiness.
Furthermore, a ban on wet markets or the sale of wild animals in China may prove ineffective. When the Chinese government banned the sale of certain wildlife following the SARS epidemic in 2002, trade in the outlawed specimens migrated to the black market. Unregulated and invisible to health authorities, black market operations are less likely to follow healthy or sustainable practices.
Finally, suppose a ban on “wet” markets is effective. The Chinese have switched from shopping for freshly-slaughtered (domesticated and wild) animals at a local “wet” market to buying packaged meats, from the standard cow-pig-chicken trifecta of domesticated animals, at Walmart or Costco.
In this future scenario, meat has to be trucked for a longer distance or flown in, greatly increasing the greenhouse gas emissions from food transport. Likewise, the industrial farms and slaughterhouses involved in meat production release far more carbon emissions than the family farms that once supplied wet markets. Increased consumption of beef in China requires expanding pastureland for grazing and feed growing, destroying forest habitats across the globe.
Overall, the transition from wet market to packaged meat consumption in China could result in a far less sustainable environmental outcome, compared to the status quo.
Indeed, the contribution of industrial meat processing to Climate Change has become a favored marketing device of vegan and vegetarian advocates these days.
So, rather than castigate wet markets, why not accept them as the dynamic enterprises they are, while promoting sanitation measures at the markets that can tame the risk of outbreaks.
And rather than gag at the Chinese consumption of fresh, wild animals-we should admire the Chinese willingness to consume animals that require less resource-intensive agriculture.