The apocalyptic images of the locked-down Chinese city of Wuhan have reached us all. The world is holding its breath over the spread of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, and governments are taking or preparing drastic measures that will necessarily sacrifice individual rights and freedoms for the general good.
Some focus their anger on China’s initial lack of transparency about the outbreak. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has spoken of “the racist paranoia” at work in the obsession with Covid-19 when there are many worse infectious diseases from which thousands die every day. Those prone to conspiracy theories believe that the virus is a biological weapon aimed at China’s economy. Few mention, let alone confront, the underlying cause of the epidemic.
Both the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic and the current one can be traced to China’s “wet markets” — open-air markets where animals are bought live and then slaughtered on the spot for the customers. Until late December 2019, everyone affected by the virus had some link to Wuhan’s Huanan Market.
At China’s wet markets, many different animals are sold and killed to be eaten: wolf cubs, snakes, turtles, guinea pigs, rats, otters, badgers and civets. Similar markets exist in many Asian countries, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In tropical and subtropical areas of the planet, wet markets sell live mammals, poultry, fish and reptiles, crammed together and sharing their breath, their blood and their excrement. As U.S. National Public Radio journalist Jason Beaubien recently reported: “Live fish in open tubs splash water all over the floor. The counter tops 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.” Wet markets, indeed.
Scientists tell us that keeping different animals in close, prolonged proximity with one another and with people creates an unhealthy environment that is the probable source of the mutation that enabled Covid-19 to infect humans. More precisely, in such an environment, a coronavirus long present in some animals underwent rapid mutation as it changed from nonhuman host to nonhuman host, and ultimately gained the ability to bind to human cell receptors, thus adapting to the human host.
This evidence prompted China, on January 26, to impose a temporary ban on wildlife animal trade. It is not the first time that such a measure has been introduced in response to an epidemic. Following the SARS outbreak, China prohibited the breeding, transport and sale of civets and other wild animals, but the ban was lifted six months later.
Today, many voices are calling for a permanent shutdown of “wildlife markets”. Zhou Jinfeng, head of China’s Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, has urged that “illegal wildlife trafficking” be banned indefinitely and has indicated that the National People’s Congress is discussing a bill to outlaw trade in protected species. Focusing on protected species, however, is a ploy to divert public attention away from the appalling circumstances in which animals in wet markets are forced to live and die. What the world really needs is a permanent ban on wet markets.
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.
If we stop to reflect on what we are doing — and mostly we do not — we are prone to justify it by appealing to the alleged superiority of our species, in much the same way that white people used to appeal to the alleged superiority of their race to justify their subjection of “inferior” humans. But at this moment, when vital human interests so clearly run parallel to the interests of nonhuman animals, this small part of the suffering we inflict on animals offers us the opportunity for a change of attitudes toward members of nonhuman species.
To achieve a ban on wet markets, we will have to overcome some specific cultural preferences, as well as resistance linked to the fact that a ban would cause economic hardship to those who make their living from the markets. But, even without giving nonhuman animals the moral consideration they deserve, these localised concerns are decisively outweighed by the calamitous impact that ever more frequent global epidemics (and perhaps pandemics) will have.
Martin Williams, a Hong Kong-based writer specialising in conservation and the environment, puts it well: “As long as such markets exist, the likelihood of other new diseases emerging will remain. Surely, it is time for China to close down these markets. In one fell swoop, it would be making progress on animal rights and nature conservation, while reducing the risk of a ‘made in China’ disease harming people worldwide.”
But we would go further. Historically, tragedies have sometimes led to important changes. Markets at which live animals are sold and slaughtered should be banned not only in China, but all over the world.