Major figures such as United States President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have claimed that SARS-COV-2 escaped from a Chinese laboratory. Experts, however, think it is more likely that the novel coronavirus originated from human contact with wildlife, possibly in a wet market in Wuhan. The new zoonotic coronavirus appears to have come from bats and then potentially passed through an intermediate animal vector to humans.
Wet markets exist not only in China but in other countries such as Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. In these wet markets, live animals are kept and slaughtered for human consumption. Such operations are thought to provide good conditions for zoonotic viruses to circulate, mutate, and infect humans. Zoonotic viruses may also be contracted from the extensive wildlife trade, including the trade in certain products in Chinese medicine. Still, wet markets themselves also pose a risk of generating future pandemics.
Wet markets have raised the ire of some well-known celebrities. Former Beatle Paul McCartney said, “Let’s face it, it is a little bit medieval eating bats…They did slavery forever too. You’ve got to change things at some point.” Queen guitarist, and recent convert to veganism, Brian May also weighed in: “I think it’s time to re-examine our world in a way that doesn’t abuse other species.”
Other diseases, notably SARS in 2003, also apparently arose from wet markets. Wet markets can contain not only familiar animals like chickens and fish but sometimes also wildlife. This can include “exotic” species like pangolins, snakes, beavers, porcupines, and crocodiles. China has previously placed bans on wet markets and trade in some wildlife, but these have since been rescinded.
The philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri have called for a permanent worldwide ban on wet markets. A ban, they think, is justified by both by the risk of zoonotic pandemics and by the suffering caused to the animals themselves:
For the animals, wet markets are hell on earth. Thousands of sentient, palpitating beings endure hours of suffering and anguish before being brutally butchered. This is just one small part of the suffering that humans systematically inflict on animals in every country – in factory farms, laboratories, and the entertainment industry. (www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/wet-markets-breeding-ground-for-new-coronavirus-by-peter-singer-and-paola-cavalieri-2020-03)
Others worry that a ban on wet markets may neither reduce the risks of zoonotic disease nor ameliorate animal suffering. This is because, they say, banning wet markets will push them underground and create an unregulated black market. After all, wet markets can be a part of a culture’s history and practice and will not disappear easily. In addition, some people depend on wet markets for their livelihood, just as some people depend on the wildlife trade.
The acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, called for a ban on wet markets. But she also pointed out that the effectiveness of a ban will depend on helping people who financially rely on them. She said:
It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people…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.
Nevertheless, Maruma Mrema believes that stamping out wet markets is the way to go. It will be important to ensure that other nations do not unfairly blame other cultures that have traditionally had those kinds of wet markets. But cultural sensitivity can co-exist with calls to ends practices that are dangerous to people and cause great animal suffering.
In addition to supporting people involved in those operations who may lose their jobs, the effectiveness of banning wet markets may also depend on how vigorously authorities investigate and police illicit practices. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused devastating global effects. This includes huge loss of life and economic disaster. Implications of this magnitude could well deliver the national and global political will for clamping down on wet markets in a more sustained and effective way.
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