Opinion: Chinese wet markets are not your scapegoat

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A Chinese wet market. Photo//TheHill

When reports of the coronavirus first appeared on mainstream news outlets in January 2020, the genesis of the virus–now named COVID-19–was unclear. Some speculation suggested the virus was transmitted from animals to humans in “wet markets” in Wuhan, China, where meat and fish are sold in open stalls, according to Global News. 

While Global News explains that wet markets are often seen as unsanitary, they are a traditional element of Chinese culture. They allow for the exchange of fresh products and conversation between the producers themselves and their customers, and are often more popular than the American notion of a store due to their cultural heritage. 

“But the narrow, crowded markets–brimming with everything from freshly caught fish to live poultry and reptiles–are ‘a breeding ground’ for new and dangerous infections, said Evangelyn Alocilja, a professor and researcher of biosystems at Michigan State University,” Global News said. 

One animal sold in the wet markets is the pangolin–similar to an anteater or armadillo–which is valued both for its meat in several Asian countries and its scales, which are thought to have medicinal properties, National Geographic states. The New York Times reports that there is a very high probability that pangolins transmitted COVID-19 to humans in the conditions of the wet markets. 

In the United States, fear of the coronavirus and knowledge about the “unsanitary” wet markets across China has spurred racism toward Chinese people and their culture; however, assigning blame to people of Chinese descent for allegedly creating a global health emergency due to their sometimes unsanitary wet market conditions is a racist notion that reflects still-tense “Eastern” and “Western” ideologies. 

In 1998, a strain of the swine flu originated on US pig farms, which would later evolve into the specific strain that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic on a pig farm in Mexico, New Scientist reports in a timeline of the swine flu.

“It is a hybrid of human, bird and swine flu viruses, and by 1999 it is the dominant flu strain in US pigs,” New Scientist said. “US pig farms try to control it with vaccines, but these attempts are largely ineffective because the virus evolves too rapidly, changing the surface proteins targeted by the vaccine while keeping its internal genes unchanged. The 2009 pandemic virus is a variant on this 1998 flu, and behaves the same way.”

Health conditions in US animal agriculture can hardly be considered sanitary: pens or cages for animals–pigs in this case–are packed tightly with more animals than they can hold, and animal waste is not disposed of properly and punctually, among other offenses. For an article about one such unsanitary hog farm in North Carolina, visit this article by the Guardian

Wet markets in China are not immediately to blame for the COVID-19 outbreak because they are unhygienic, nor because they offer different meats and products than US consumers see as familiar. The types of animal meat different cultures consume–for example, pangolin for Chinese households and pork for American households–are not reflections of how “exotic” or “backwards” a non-American diet is.

Instead, American frustration both with COVID-19’s alleged outbreak in Chinese food markets and with Chinese-Americans who could be allegedly carrying the virus are simply a function of fear in response to the global health emergency. The truth is that food preparation is often unhygienic in many industries, regardless of whether individual producers are selling their goods in an open-stalled wet market in Wuhan or whether Americans are purchasing meat from their grocery store deli. 

Racism toward Chinese-Americans, Chinese people abroad and those who travel, and toward Chinese cultural practices is a manifestation of Americans’ own myopic attitudes toward the shortcomings of our own cultural practices in food preparation and sale. 

While conditions in Wuhan’s wet markets are likely to blame for the spread of the virus, wet markets’ cultural background and the components of a Chinese diet are being wrongfully condemned.

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Claire Kowalec
In addition to her penchant for journalism, Claire Kowalec is majoring in history and education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She welcomes any feedback, comments, or curiosities at ckowalec@umich.edu.