Why Wet Markets are Blamed for the Pandemic and Why They Shouldn’t Be

Written by Trisha Benzon
Illustration by Eva Gonzales
Published 13 June 2021

The pandemic has brought about a rise in communication, from information to misinformation. However, anything can be misconstrued by how it is portrayed in the media, wet markets are one such victim as it is primarily seen as the root of the virus.

First to note is that wet markets exist in many countries outside China, especially prominent in the Asian region like palengke in the Philippines. Wet markets have been generally defined as “a partially open commercial complex with vending stalls organized in rows; they often have slippery floors and narrow aisles along which independent vendors primarily sell “wet” items such as meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and fruits.” [1] All types of local or traditional food can be found at a lower price than what can be found in the grocery store. However, wet markets have still been identified as likely sources of outbreaks of zoonoses, diseases transmissible from animal to humans [1], examples include HIV, salmonella, Ebola, and Covid-19 [2]. 

 Wet markets are seen as a center of zoonotic diseases since they house the sale of wildlife, where species that would not encounter each other in natural circumstances are forced together in cramped spaces. [3] As cages are not continuously cleaned and sanitized, viral pathogens from these animals are able to mix, swap pieces of genetic codes, and even mutate to become transmissible. [2] These viral pathogens are then spread as these animals’ are exposed to humans when bought at the market.

Since a wet market in Wuhan was identified as the most likely origin of Covid-19 [4], wet markets were met with public outcry towards its practices. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the American director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, publicly expressed his opinions to close wet markets, “It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down.” [3] Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the United Nations’ biodiversity chief also expressed that all live animal markets, not just wild ones, should be banned. [3] 

However, it should be noted that not all wet markets include the selling of live or even wild animals, yet, they are still the target of public disapproval as some call for a total ban. Experts debate on the severity of the ban, whether only wild animals should be restricted, while others question if a ban is needed at all. [3] 

Experts agree that ending the illegal trade of animals is the most important means of preventing the next pandemic. [5] However, the differences between wet markets and wildlife markets still need to be clearly established before policies or closures are set in place. Wet markets are a more general marketplace whereas wildlife markets are specific towards selling wild animals, and still the term “wild” has a flexible meaning. [2] Though wildlife markets are legal, illegal animals may still be sold and tracking becomes difficult as businesses are conducted online. [2] The World Wildlife Fund claims that even if illegal trade had better regulation, it may simply go underground, becoming even harder to manage. Nonetheless, the organization states, “This health crisis must serve as a wake-up call for the need to end unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts”. [5] 

Before making assumptions and forming opinions on whether or not wet markets in general should be closed, socioeconomic and cultural factors should also be considered. Across the world, wet markets are places where people can buy fresh food at cheaper prices compared to grocery markets. Produce, with a wide range of fruits and vegetables, are sourced from local farmers. With the closure of wet markets, millions would lose access to affordable food, and the livelihood of farmers and other stall-owners are also destroyed by the loss of consumers. [3] From looking in this perspective, closing down wet markets is not a simple solution as it would lead to a possible increase in hunger and poverty. However, safety measurements and sanitary precautions should still be implemented to keep up with hygienic and environmental standards. [6] In April 2020, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that they are working with United Nation bodies to develop guidelines on safe operation of wet markets. [1]

Epidemiologists have already noticed patterns as a rapidly growing population usurps natural habitats: wildlife is forced to migrate where farm animals and humans live, and since livestock systems usually keep animals compacted, diseases are able to spread faster. [6] So we simply cannot place blame on marketplace practices or countries since zoonotic diseases have the potential to originate anywhere around the world. [7] 

Sonia Shah, a science journalist, states “Moving forward, what we have to see is that pandemics, climate disasters, all of these are related to our huge footprint on the planet… We’re going to lurch from disaster to disaster to disaster until we start to really change the fundamental relationship between us and nature”. [8] Media has put wet markets at the center of blame for zoonotic diseases when in actuality, there are so many other elements to consider. A ban on wet markets is only a band aid solution with no promises on beneficial outcomes, it fails to identify and understand humanity’s real problem of overusing and abusing natural resources.

References

  1. Buchanan, Kelly. Library of Congress. Regulation of Wild Animal Wet Markets. [Internet] [2020 August, cited 2021 May 15] https://www.loc.gov/law/help/wet-markets/index.php
  2. Maron, Dina. National Geographic. ‘Wet markets’ likely launched the coronavirus. Here’s what you need to know. [Internet] [2020 April 15, cited 2021 May 15]. Available from:https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/coronavirus-linked-to-chinese-wet-markets
  3. Samuel, Sigal. Vox. The coronavirus likely came from China’s wet markets. They’re reopening anyway. [Internet] [2020 April 15, cited 2021 May 15] https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/4/15/21219222/coronavirus-china-ban-wet-markets-reopening
  4. NDTV. Wuhan Wet Market Most Likely Origin Of Covid: WHO Probe Team To China. [Internet] [2021 March 12, cited 2021 May 15] https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/wuhan-wet-market-most-likely-origin-of-covid-who-probe-team-to-china-2389686
  5. Wang, Serenitie. Westcott, Ben. CNN. China’s wet markets are not what some people think they are. [Internet] [2020 April 23, cited 2021 May 15]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/14/asia/china-wet-market-coronavirus-intl-hnk/index.html
  6. Rath,Thomas. Ifad. Why do wet markets matter? [Internet] [2020 June 5, cited 2021 May 15] https://www.ifad.org/en/web/latest/-/blog/why-do-wet-markets-matter-
  7. Samuel, Sigal. Vox. The meat we eat is a pandemic risk, too. [Internet] [2020 August 20, cited 2021 May 15]. Available from: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/4/22/21228158/coronavirus-pandemic-risk-factory-farming-meat
  8. Samuel, Sigal. Vox. Our environmental practices make pandemics like the coronavirus more likely. [Internet] [2021 May 12, cited 2021 May 15]. Available from: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/3/31/21199917/coronavirus-covid-19-animals-pandemic-environment-climate-biodiversity

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