By Rebecca Mariana Bengtsson
Since the suspicion first surfaced that the SARS-CoV-2 virus stems from China, most likely from the Huanan wet market in Wuhan, Chinese communities abroad have been exposed to a wave of heightened racism and hate crime. A large portion of the hate has been directed towards restaurants and is rooted in long-living misperceptions around Chinese food culture. In the story of Covid vs the world, the Chinese are seen as the dirty, disease-ridden antagonists, carrying an arsenal of exotic wild meats, often seen snacking on a bat. In real life however, it is never as simple as the stories we tell ourselves. What then, is the truth about the Chinese wildlife trade?
The wildlife trade in China was established largely in the era of economic reform starting in 1978, after a long period of widespread famine and financial problems under the leadership of Mao Zedong. The government provided incentives for poor Chinese people to start catching and farming wild species of animals, like reptiles, tigers and wild birds. This was to earn a living at a time when funds for restructuring and industrializing livestock farming on a large scale were not available. Today, most of the exotic meats farmed by these businesses, who make up a negligible portion of total food production, are sold to wealthy people and are seen as luxury items. China is a large country with many regions and local food customs and there are regional differences in the popularity of wild meats. However, traditionally, wild meats have mostly served a purpose in Chinese medicine and as exotic luxury consumption, not really as a regular part of most people’s diets – not traditionally and not today.
Wild animals and their meat are sold online or at specific wildlife markets, sometimes in dedicated wildlife sections at the now infamous wet markets. However, most wet markets do not feature a wildlife section. Typically, wet markets are open-air markets selling fresh-perishable goods such as meats, seafood and vegetables. The fresh, sometimes live, nature of the produce, coupled with the melting ice used to keep them fresh, give wet markets their name. They are important features in both Chinese society and Asia at large, both as a way for people to access fresh and affordable food and as a source of livelihood for the sellers. They are not inherently problematic and hence there is no reason for China to enforce a ban on wet markets as a concept.
The problems arise when live animals are stacked in wire cages to be slaughtered or sold alive to the customer, which allows viruses to mingle and mutate, and potentially escape into a human host. The dangers associated with the consumption of wild meats has led to a ban on the trade and consumption of such animals in China, with widespread support among the population in all of South-East Asia to close down unregulated and illegal wildlife trade. It is not only the wildlife trade that we should be aware of though – factory farming of livestock, occurring across the world, is also known to create optimal conditions for the spread of disease and is a danger to both animal and human welfare. The way we eat has great consequences for our health, our societies and our planet, and we need to take the warning signs seriously. This is a global issue, one that will not be solved by pointing our grievances at one group of people or on a single country. It concerns us all.
By Rebecca Mariana Bengtsson
Illustration: Paulina Cederskär