By Charles Jaja-Sackey
As of March this year, COVID-19 is in more than 80 countries and has killed more than 4,600 people, the vast majority in China. That’s where the virus emerged back in December 2019.
This isn’t a new phenomenon for China; in 2003, the SARS virus also emerged there, and under similar circumstances, before spreading around the world and killing nearly 800. Both SARS and COVID-19 are in the “coronavirus” family, and both appear to have emerged from animals in China’s notorious wildlife markets.
If you watched the series “Pandemic” on Netflix, you will recall experts predicting that these markets, known to be potential sources of disease, would enable another outbreak. The markets, and the wildlife trade that supports them, are the underlying problem of these pandemics; until China solves that problem, more are likely to emerge.
I want to categorically state now that my essay is not targeted at the Chinese people, and as you may all already know, this is not a place for xenophobic comments of any kind – your comment will be deleted, you will be blocked and reported as spam. Please be guided.
One of my criticisms of the Chinese politburo is the delay in addressing the outbreak – especially the local government authorities. After a about a month of suppression of whistleblowers, on New Year’s Eve of 2019, health officials in China finally admitted they had a problem and the Chinese government issued an alert to the World Health Organization (WHO) about a new illness that was spreading through the city of Wuhan. Patients were coming down with a mysterious fever, dry cough, and pneumonia. Soon, some were dying. This, as we now know was a new virus, named SARS-CoV-2, and health officials were racing to find the source.
A leading hypothesis is that the virus emerged from animals at a popular market in Wuhan. This is not a surprise for many experts because it’s happened before. In 2003, a virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a market in Foshan, China. It caused the SARS disease, which spread to dozens of countries and killed nearly 800 people. The similarities between the two viruses raise the question: Why do new diseases keep emerging from China? Clearly there is a deeper issue of China’s wildlife trade and how it’s putting global health at risk.
After reporting to WHO, the Chinese health authorities activated their most serious response level. Doctors named the disease COVID-19 or “coronavirus disease, 2019” indicating that a type of virus is causing the illness. When they’d tried to trace its origin, they found a likely source: A food market in Wuhan. This is partly because out of the first 41 patients, 27 had been there, at that market. It wasn’t conclusive evidence, but Chinese officials quickly shut down the market, because they had seen this happen before at a market just like this one:
In 2002, a coronavirus had emerged at a very similar market, in southern China. It eventually reached
29 countries and killed nearly 800 people. Now, 18 years later, this coronavirus is in at least 80 countries and has already killed over 4,600 people. So, what do these markets have to do with the coronavirus outbreak… and why is it happening in China?
You see a lot of the viruses that make us sick, actually originate in animals. Some of the viruses that cause the flu come from birds and pigs. HIV/AIDS comes from chimpanzees. The deadly Ebola virus likely originates in bats. And in the case of the 2019 coronavirus, there is some evidence it went from a bat to a pangolin before infecting a human.
While viruses are very good at jumping between species, it’s rare for a deadly one to make this journey all the way to humans. That’s because it would need all these hosts to encounter each other at some point. That’s where the Wuhan market comes in: it’s a wet-market, a kind of place where live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption. That’s exactly how a virus can jump from one animal to another. If that animal then comes in contact with or is consumed by a human, the virus could potentially infect them. And if the virus then spreads to other humans, it causes an outbreak.
Wet-markets are scattered all over the world, but the ones in China are particularly well known because they offer a wide variety of animals, including wildlife. If you Google the sample menu in Wuhan you would see all sorts of animals. These animals are from all over the world and each one has the potential to carry its own viruses to the market.
The reason all these animals are in the same market is because of a decision China’s government made decades ago. Back in the 1970s China was falling apart, famine had killed more than 36 million people and the Communist regime, which controlled all food production, was failing to feed its more than 900 million people. In 1978, on the verge of collapse, the regime gave up this control and allowed private farming. While large companies increasingly dominated the production of popular foods like pork and poultry, some smaller farmers turned to catching and raising wild animals as a way to sustain themselves.
And since it started to feed and sustain people, the Chinese government backed it. But then in 1988, the government made a decision that changed the shape of wildlife trade in China. They enacted the Wildlife Protection Law which designated the animals as “resources owned by the state” and protected people engaged in the “utilisation of wildlife resources”. The law also “encouraged the domestication
and breeding of wildlife.” With that, an industry was born.
Small local farms turned into industrial-sized operations. For example, bear farms that started with just
Three eventually grew to more than 1,000 bears. Bigger populations meant greater chances that
a sick animal could spread disease. Farmers were also raising a wide variety of animals, which meant more viruses on the farms. Nonetheless, these animals were funnelled into the wet-markets for profit.
While this legal wildlife farming industry started booming, it simultaneously provided cover for an illegal wildlife industry. Endangered animals like tigers, rhinoceroses, and pangolins, were trafficked into China. By the early 2000s, these markets were teeming with wild animals when the inevitable happened. This is what health officials have feared all along. This is what that Netflix series “Pandemic” I mentioned earlier in this post extensively covered.
In 2003, the SARS outbreak was traced to a wet-market here, in southern China. Scientists found traces of the virus in farmed civet cats. Chinese officials quickly shut down the markets and banned wildlife farming. But a few months after the outbreak, the Chinese government declared 54 species of wildlife animals, including civet cats, legal to farm again. By 2004, the wildlife-farming industry was worth an estimated $100 billion Yuan (about USD $14.3 billion) and these markets’ lobby groups exerted significant influence over the Chinese government.
It’s because of this influence that the Chinese government has allowed these markets to grow over the years. In 2016, for example, the government sanctioned the farming of some endangered species like tigers, and pangolins. By 2018, the wildlife industry had grown to 148 billion Yuan (USD $21.2 billion) and had developed clever marketing tactics to keep the markets around.
Yet, these products became popular with an influential portion of China’s population: it’s this rich minority that the Chinese government chose to favour over the safety of the rest of its population. Also worth mentioning that a lot of the animals in the wet-market are not eaten per se. The industry has been promoting these wildlife animals as tonic products, body-building, as sex-enhancing, and of course, as disease-fighting remedies. Obviously none of these claims hold water. But it’s easy to see why it’s appealing.
Soon after the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government shut down thousands of wet-markets and temporarily banned wildlife trade again. Organisations around the world have been urging China to make the ban permanent. Chinese social media, in particular, has been flooded with petitions to ban it for good this time. In response, China is reportedly amending the Wildlife Protection Law that encouraged wildlife farming decades ago. But unless these actions lead to a permanent ban on wildlife farming, outbreaks like this one are bound to happen again.
Again I want to point out that the majority of the people in China do not eat wildlife animals. Those people who consume these wildlife animals are the rich and the powerful –a small minority. The people of China are themselves victims of the conditions that led to coronavirus. The virus is affecting many different countries and cultures, and there is never justification for xenophobia or racism.
,•Jaja-Sackey is an essayist, he lives in the United Kingdom