Coronavirus: China's wet markets reportedly reopening, reigniting global calls for widespread closures

Photos from a Chinese wet market.
Photos from a Chinese wet market. Photo credit: Muyi Xiao / Twitter

The Hubei Province city of Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19, has emerged from an 11-week lockdown imposed to fight its rampant outbreak of the virus. Yet as the city slowly reopens, concerns are mounting that its notorious wet markets are also stirring back to life.

One of the city's largest wet markets, Baishazhou, is back in business - but with some changes. According to reports, organisers are warning vendors that "slaughtering and selling live animals" is no longer permitted, in cooperation with China's recently issued, temporary ban on wildlife markets during the COVID-19 crisis.

Wildlife trading is frequently seen as an integral element of China's wet markets. Live animals such as snakes, lizards, wolf pups and pangolins are often kept in filthy cages, leading to the incubation of certain diseases that can transfer to humans. 

The intense debate surrounding China's wet markets follows the controversial link between COVID-19 and Wuhan's Huanan seafood market, which has remained closed since January. Experts and Chinese officials have claimed humans contracted the virus from market wildlife, kept in unsanitary conditions. Close contact with wild animals, such as bats and pangolins, has therefore been largely blamed for the pandemic, although the exact origin of the virus remains unconfirmed. 

What are wet markets?

In an interview with MagicTalk on Monday, the international chair of FreeLand Foundation and wet market expert Steven Galster described the markets as "[selling] fish or animals that are served to consumers as food... basically a wildlife restaurant and takeaway".

He said the exotic animals frequently sold at wet markets are often purchased from dealers - some legal and some illegal - who may source the species directly from the wild or from other chains of China's wildlife trade.

"China also has a big infrastructure of wildlife farms, set up a long time under Mao [Zedong] as a poverty reduction exercise to help people become self-sustaining through animals... they are now out of control. These farms mask an illegal trade... they want genetic diversity, so they rely on traffickers for more animals," he explained.

Animals are transported by traffickers from point A to B via all methods imaginable, including planes, trains, vehicles - even the post.

Galster acknowledged that reports claiming mass re-openings of China's wet markets are "partly fake news", but many markets selling wildlife continue to operate across Asia.

While numerous people worldwide, including US officials, have called for the markets to be banned or shut down, other experts are refuting the need for widespread closures. Like Western farmers' markets, locals rely on them for produce such as fruit and vegetables. Bloomberg notes there may be some confusion over calls for mass-market closures, versus calls to end their trading of live animals.

"Banning wet markets is not only going to be impossible, but will also be destructive for urban food security in China as they play such a pivotal role in ensuring access to affordable and healthy food," Dr Zhenzhong Si, a food security research associate at the University of Waterloo, told the outlet

Galster, on the other hand, called wet markets "torture chambers".

"These markets are horrible, they really are torture chambers... frankly we're really glad they've finally been exposed as that and people now realise wildlife protection is good for people too," he told MagicTalk.

"We think the solution here is very simple - end commercial wildlife trade."

As reported by The Guardian, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has also called for markets selling live and dead animals for human consumption to be banned, in a bid to prevent future pandemics.

She noted the need for alternatives, particularly in rural Asian and African communities, where many livelihoods are dependent on the markets. 

"It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has [temporarily] done... but we should also remember you have communities... which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people," Mrema told The Guardian.

"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."

According to recent figures, more than 3200 people have died from the virus in China's Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located. China-wide, there have been 3337 confirmed cases.

The virus has infected more than 1.5 million people worldwide, killing over 87,900 and wreaking havoc on the global economy as Governments impose nationwide lockdowns in a bid to eliminate its spread.

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