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The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, in effect the executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party, in late February issued an edict banning the country’s “wet markets,” including those in Wuhan, the source of the current COVID-19 outbreak. The statement notes that “it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.” The Straits Times of Singapore has reported that eight laws have been passed in the last week. We have no details on the contents of the legislation. It’s too soon to know, though, whether we have been down this road before.
After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was traced to a wet market in the southern Guangdong Province, a temporary ban on wet markets and the wild-animal industry were put in place. In July of that year, the World Health Organization declared the SARS virus contained, and in August the Chinese government lifted the ban.
Wet markets are found the world over, typically open-air sites selling fresh meat, seafood, and produce. The meats often are butchered and trimmed on-site. Markets in China have come in for justifiable condemnation because of the way they’ve evolved, commingling traditional livestock with a wide variety of wild animals, including exotic and endangered species. Many are quite unsanitary, with blood, entrails, excrement, and other waste creating the conditions for disease that migrates from animals to people through virus, bacteria, and other forms of transmission. Such “zoonotic diseases” that have emerged from China and other regions of the world include Ebola, HIV, bird flu, swine flu, and SARS.
The wild animals that mix with more common livestock — poultry, swine, and seafood — form a deadly combination. And, as has been well reported by Vox and others, wild-animal farming has a long history in China, emerging after disastrous decades of state control of rural production under Mao Zedong. By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, tens of millions of Chinese citizens had died of starvation under a system that could not produce enough food for China’s population.
Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, in the late 1970s lifted state controls on rural farming to allow peasant farmers to provide for their own sustenance. Rats, bats, civet cats, pangolins, and other wild animals became staples of rural farming. To acknowledge and even encourage this, the government enacted laws that protected “the lawful rights of those engaged in the development or utilization of wildlife resources.”
Over time, this led to the breeding and distribution of these animals, and small rural outposts developed into larger-scale operations. Add to this the use of wild animals not only for consumption but as the supposedly magic ingredients in tonics and alternative medicines, and it is obvious that what began as subsistence farming for the rural poor has developed into a substantial industry. Wuhan, a city most Americans had never heard of before this year, is larger than New York City.
Wet markets and commingling with wild animals have created much misery for the Chinese and for the world. Sixty million Americans caught the H1N1 “swine flu” virus in 2009, while the SARS outbreak killed nearly 800 people worldwide. The COVID-19 death toll is already multiples of that.
We should be skeptical about reports of a crackdown on the wild-animal industry in the wake of the Wuhan catastrophe. We don’t know any details about the new laws that have been reported. What will be the enforcement and discipline? Law enforcement in rural China is notoriously lax, in contrast to the cities, where the use of surveillance technology and other means to control the population is widespread. What is the posture toward Chinese medicine, which is a significant driver of the wild-animal industry? While thousands of such wet markets have been closed, how did we get to 2020 with such practices in a city larger than the largest U.S. city?
So far, we may just be seeing a repeat of the “crackdown” after the SARS epidemic, which was quickly and quietly lifted. We do not know the nature of the current ban. And can we even trust Beijing to keep such bans in place, particularly with a slowing economy and persistent rural poverty? Also, what exactly is banned? It should be all aspects of the wild-animal trade — breeding, transporting, and marketing.
There should be permanent closure of the wet markets, given the government’s obvious inability or unwillingness to regulate them. Such a comprehensive approach would be a reversal of decades of government policy and market practice, but when we get through this crisis and the toll it will take on the world, we will owe it to the memory of those we lose that there be a global, sustained push to see these practices ended, everywhere.