This is an original article by Vinnie Chua and Racia Yoong from Global Initiatives.
What started out as an epidemic mainly has now become a global pandemic, announced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11th, 2020.
It appears, as many health experts would agree, that this disease originated from a seafood market selling wild animals, such as bats, rabbits, and snakes.
Except, these wildlife are being traded illegally.
While the hunt for a way to prevent future outbreaks remains unknown, there have been strong contenders including a total ban on wet markets around the world as called upon by wildlife activists and medical professionals.
Wet markets are believed to be epicenters for disease outbreak, increasing the occurrence of infectious diseases between animals and humans, also known as zoonotic diseases.
Public health experts say that the decision to ban wet markets and their fight to contain wildlife trade are the first important steps to slow down the coronavirus spread.
Conservationists and animal rights activists are joining in as well, campaigning for more stringent regulations surrounding the captive breeding and slaughtering of wildlife, urging the public to recognise that these wet markets are perpetrators of animal cruelty and that we should not remove these animals from their natural habitats.
In some countries, wildlife sold in wet markets is found right next to our fresh, unfrozen, raw meat, making it the perfect breeding ground for the spread of zoonotic diseases.
Unfortunately, said wet markets are located throughout Asia and have been deeply ingrained in these cultures and has become a part of their heritage.
Handicapped by poverty, our rural communities are often unable to afford the luxury of electricity and proper infrastructure to ensure safe storage conditions for their meats.
In the wake of a deadly pandemic, calls to ban wild animal sales at wet markets will inevitably erase an essential part of the community’s culture and lifestyle, putting millions of people out of a job and taking away their source of food security.
Although there are clear links to a global ban on wildlife markets and the prevention of future pandemics, an issue that few are concerned with and many have neglected is the huge dependence that communities in low-income rural areas have on wildlife sales and trade for their livelihoods.
The double standard
First, the consumption of meat apart from what is the “norm” (chicken, pork and beef etc.) is dismissed as “backward” or “strange” even though the breeding of wild animals like pangolins and bamboo rats is legal under the legislation.
While some may call wet markets an “unusual human-animal interaction”, they are “an old way of life preserved against modernisation”, a showcase of regional and cultural diversity, and more importantly, a way of access to non-processed, fresh food for lower-income households.
The double standard is apparent when we begin to consider other animal-derived food products as “unique”.
For example, the ugly truth behind our Kopi Luwak is actually made with coffee beans extracted from the faeces of civets and hailed as one of the most expensive coffee in the world. We often turn a blind eye to these civets being held captive in small wire cages and fed nothing more than coffee cherries.
This is the normal some of us subscribe to!
The lesson to learn
We can all agree that the mix of live and wild animals in densely populated areas is creating the perfect storm for a virus whose goal is to spread like wildfire. But we have to get the right people to debate on this issue.
Before advocating for a complete ban on wet markets and consumption of wildlife, we need to acknowledge that there is a culinary diversity in different communities and these markets serve an essential and important way of life for these people.
Instead of calling for a blanket ban on wildlife trade which is unlikely to benefit people or wildlife, a more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation on public health grounds.
Bans are seldom the answer because it stigmatises consumption and overlooks the complexity of wildlife trade.
While there is an urgent need to enforce greater regulation surrounding the sale and butchering of live and wild animals, making everyone’s lives much easier, we have to keep in mind the social and cultural implications that it might have.
Why does conservation matter in the time of coronavirus?
Despite such negative times, some governments have taken a wider perspective to recognise that climate change, in so many ways, alters the way infectious diseases transmit, displacing local communities from their homes and livelihood conditions.
It is encouraging to see that positive action has already taken place to regulate and halt the spread of disease by protecting our wildlife and nature.
While it is good news that there have already been several bans on wildlife trade for consumption being introduced, removing restrictions to trade live wild animals at wet markets is not likely to end the eating of wild animals – a superstition of eating exotic wild animals for health or medicinal purposes that some communities subscribe to, nor will it end the possibility of future pandemics.
The biggest challenge in conservation is the ability for us to look beyond our own needs.
It is imperative that we understand that the conservation mission is not reserved for the conservationists, but for everyone.
Every single one of us can pivot to make a real contribution to conservation. It is not just about protecting the natural environment around us, but to ensure that our future generations can continue to enjoy this planet.
It is true. We can’t make everyone happy and there are many ways to argue and debate on the issues of wildlife trade.
But the one thing we can choose to focus on is becoming more aware of the prejudices we hold and seek to overcome as we thrive for a more inclusive and equitable society.