Across Asia, many shopping districts sell exotic animals from all over the world in hot, humid, cramped, unsanitary, and torturous conditions. A Botswana meerkat, an American badger, an Amazon jungle bat – these are the types of species you will come across in the thousands of wet markets on the continent. Could a wet market in Bangkok or Phnom Penh become ground zero for the next SARS, avian flu, or COVID-19? To answer this question, it is important to understand the economics of wet markets and what makes them so dangerous.
For now, the official story is that the Coronavirus outbreak originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. It became ground zero for COVID-19 as more than two dozen environmental samples taken from the market highlighted evidence of the disease. Of the initial 41 people hospitalized, two-thirds had contact with this place. The authorities shut it down for unsanitary and infectious conditions. But why would a seafood establishment be the cause of the global pandemic? Besides fish, it also sold bats, foxes, pangolins, rats, snakes, and wolf puppies for human consumption.
Wet markets are small bazaars in shopping districts where everything is, well, wet. A lot of these businesses sell wildlife and endangered species that have been smuggled in from all over the world. These creatures, from blue tongue lizards to pigs, are placed in small cages and forced to live together in undesirable and unnatural conditions. Nearly all these species never interact with each other in the wild, which creates the risk of just one animal contracting an infectious virus.
What makes matters worse is just how unsanitary conditions can be inside a wet market. Livestock and dead animals are typically in close proximity, prisoners in these houses of death are openly slaughtered and skinned in the area, and garbage is piled on wet floors. Since many of the markets are open outlets, flies have an easy source for food – just think of the ramifications.
NPR wrote at the end of January:
“Live fish in open tubs splash water all over the floor. The countertops of the stalls are red with blood as fish are gutted and filleted right in front of the customers’ eyes. Live turtles and crustaceans climb over each other in boxes. Melting ice adds to the slush on the floor. There’s lots of water, blood, fish scales and chicken guts. Things are wet.”
Liberty Nation’s Mark Angelides, who lived in China for many years, says it is a gamble for people to buy from these places, even if foreign animals are absent:
“I visited several wet markets in various regions in China, and the majority are not bizarre beasts and endangered animals for your plate. However, there is no way of telling where the animals (mostly seafood) come from. It could be a polluted river; they could have been stored in conditions that are ripe for disease. It’s very much a gamble buying from them even at the best of times. At the very least expect no refrigeration and the reuse of dirty water.”
It is hard to believe that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market passed city inspections. Because authorities failed to act, researchers think that the Coronavirus most likely mutated from a virus found in animals and transmitted to humans at the marketplace, similar to SARS nearly 20 years ago. Since the animals’ immune systems are weakened due to the stress of captivity in these hellacious conditions, viruses in these creatures can interconnect, trade elements of their genetic code, and spread from host to host. When this takes place, a new strain of animal virus forms.
After the fall of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese government privatized the agricultural industry to help fight the famine. This resulted in the food supply being replenished by major companies after years of starvation prompted by communist policies. Smaller farmers survived by providing wildlife, such as bats, turtles, and snakes, as consumable products. Because the practice both fed people and generated income for so many farmers to come out of poverty, the federal government supported the endeavor.
Years later, wildlife officially became assets owned by the state and designated as a natural resource. Politicians eventually encouraged the farming and domestication of wildlife. The result was industrial-sized farming with facilities housing bears, raccoons, and crocodiles that increased risks of viruses. At the same time, legal wildlife trading evolved into selling tigers, pangolins, and even rhinoceroses.
All these animals were transported to wet markets. Over the years, the government has applied temporary restrictions in response to virus outbreaks only to lift them months later. Put simply, this was a government-created problem, and it is an issue that is perpetuated by the state.
Made in China?
The Chinese government has shut down thousands of these wet markets, but the central authorities have not entirely outlawed their existence. Instead, the country installed a temporary prohibition on the farming and consumption of “terrestrial wildlife of important ecological, scientific and social value.” Even if Beijing made these wet markets illegal, it would not curtail the prevalence of these vendors since they are located throughout Asia, from Cambodia to Thailand to Indonesia.
In February, Bloomberg reported on Indonesia’s “scariest market” that sold bats and snakes, which were removed over COVID-19 fears. But the nation’s wet markets continue to sell other products, such as cats, dogs, and rats. A popular dish in the country is the famous bat and coconut milk soup called Paniki.
60 Minutes Australia journalist Liam Bartlett recently visited one in Bangkok and published undercover footage that featured wild creatures from across the globe. African serval cats, fennec foxes from the Sahara, and marmosets from South America — the Thailand wet market was a second Wuhan in the making.
So, knowing just how they have metastasized, why haven’t governments everywhere prohibited them? For one thing, many of these businesses use a loophole on wild animals being used for traditional medicine. The other issue is that a significant number of vendors have a connection to larger crime syndicates that participate in the illegal wildlife trade. You shut one down, another shop pops up. In the end, it is a multibillion-dollar business that will be hard to eliminate.
Plus, an unintended consequence of outlawing these wet markets would be to push them underground, making them harder to control during a public health crisis. Exotic animals would be bred, farmed, housed, and sold in rural and clandestine communities. The illegal trade of wildlife would lead to virus outbreaks that begin in smaller areas rather than in city centers.
A Ticking Time Bomb
A wet market that slaughters bats next to a cage of monkeys on a floor of fish scales is a weapon of mass destruction in the making. It is a ticking time bomb that can lead to the next global pandemic that makes SARS and COVID-19 seem like a cakewalk. All it takes is one diseased animal to infect another that passes it to a human, that human in a small town infects a neighbor, and a global pandemic is launched.
The only solution is the elimination of wildlife demand. If the public understands the dangers of consuming bats, rodents, and monkeys, especially from a dilapidated wet market, it may choose a chicken dinner instead. The collapse of pangolin sales might be the start.
Read more from Andrew Moran.