Emerging from virus lockdown, Wuhan’s ‘wet markets’ face uncertain future

Signs at a large food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan prohibit the sale of wild animals and live poultry, while announcements calling for “victory” over the COVID-19 loop over loudspeakers.

China’s “wet markets” have been criticized internationally as the coronavirus toured the world, with the disease apparently emerging from stalls selling live game in Wuhan late last year.

The government has since banned the sale of wild animals for food, but the reopening of markets has drawn criticism from around the world as the death toll from the pandemic continues to rise.

Closed during the long quarantine period that wrapped Wuhan until April 8, the city markets are now fighting for their survival because customers do not rush.

“There is no doubt that we are doomed this year,” spice vendor Yang, who maintains a stand at the massive Baishazhou wholesale market, told AFP. “There have never been so few people on our market.”

Yang, whose sales fell by a third from the closure, dismissed criticism of the markets as hotbeds of the virus as “unnecessary panic.”

A resident pays for groceries while standing on a tree stump to look over the barriers installed to close a wet market on a street in Wuhan on April 1, 2020. © Aly Song, REUTERS

One market remains closed: the Huanan seafood market which has sold a range of exotic wild animals and is believed to be the cradle of the virus that has passed from animals to humans.

Wet markets are popular places to buy fresh meat, vegetables and fish across Asia – most selling everyday and local produce to locals at affordable prices.

Most do not sell live animals, although some do.

During visits to three markets in Wuhan this week, AFP saw live turtles, frogs, fish and crustaceans for sale, but no poultry or mammals blamed for past illnesses.

Baishazhou workers said they now have to disinfect their stalls several times a day. Yang keeps several bottles of disinfectant in his small office, next to a box of masks.

However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week that the decision to reopen the wet markets was “unfathomable”.

“We must protect the world from potential sources of epidemics of these types of viruses,” he told Australian TV.

The United States’ largest medical specialist, Anthony Fauci, told Fox News earlier this month that the wet markets should be closed “immediately”.

‘Doomed’

Nationalist nationalist Global Times launched a stern defense against China’s wet markets on Tuesday, attacking “preconceived ideas” and “ridiculous demands” to close them.

Although the World Health Organization has declared that governments should ban the sale of exotic wild animals and enforce food safety regulations, it has not called for the closure of wet markets.

Vendors in the Wuhan markets say that unaffordable rents and the lingering effects of the city’s closure are more immediate concerns than the threat of contagion.

“Business is very bad,” said Zhang Zhizhen, a duck seller at the Lanling market. “It’s because of the epidemic – there are still very few people on the streets.”

Most of the market vendors in Wuhan who spoke to AFP said that they never sold wild animals.

But at the city’s Tiansheng market, two sellers of freshwater products who refused to give their names said they had to stop selling certain types of frogs and turtles because of the new rules.

“It certainly affects our income, but we have to overcome it. It can’t be helped,” said one salesperson.

Low pedestrian traffic in the market, which has locked all but one entrance and only allows customers to enter after a temperature control, remains their main concern.

“We don’t know if we can survive,” said the other seller. “Do you see someone here?”

Supermarket competition

Shoppers on the streets of Wuhan did not seem disturbed by critics of the city’s wet markets as dirty and dangerous, citing convenience as the reason for choosing supermarkets instead.

A 40-year-old supermarket shopper nicknamed Chen told AFP that she thought the food in the wet markets was “good and cheap”.

She dismissed criticism that the Chinese markets are unhygienic, saying “it just isn’t true.”

“Their business is always fresh,” she said.

The Chinese traditionally prefer to buy fresh food – as opposed to frozen or packaged food – although supermarkets have struggled to rob consumers in recent years.

In 2019, the majority of Chinese people said they prefer to shop in supermarkets over other types of food stores, according to Chinese research firm iiMedia.

“There are just more things in supermarkets,” Jiang Yonghui, a 20-year-old Wuhan resident, told AFP. “I don’t think there is a difference in hygiene.”

(AFP)