COVID-19 has created havoc around the world, with much of the globe over one-third of the world’s population estimated to be—or have been—under lockdown and experiencing restrictions on freedom unimaginable only a year ago.earlier this year.  

Economists fear the economic impacts will be the worst since the Great Depression of 1929 and hundreds of millions of jobs will be lost around the world. Given the devastation, extremely strong measures should be taken to ensure that it never happens again.  

COVID-19 most likely originated in a wet market with wildlife species in Wuhan, China. It most likely originated in bats, and jumped to humans through an intermediary source—probably via pangolins.  

Consequently, there has been pressure from international governments, NGOs and celebrities calling for the closure of all wet markets (and all wildlife markets by some). Opponents would ask: is calling for a closure of all wet and wildlife markets likely to get us to our objective of ensuring something like COVID-19 doesn’t happen again? 

To answer this question, we first need to understand wet markets. 

Misunderstood, not malicious 

Wet markets are varied and complex across Asia and the world. Wet markets sell fresh produce; ‘wet’ refers to the fresh fruit, vegetables and meat sold on the premises. In many ways, they are run-of-the-mill farmers markets. The issue for a lot of people is that live animals are present, and sometimes butchered at some of these markets. Only a minority of wet markets sell exotic wildlife, and many of these exist outside of China. In fact, a lot of the images we have seen go viral on social media are of bats in Tomohon, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, not from Wuhan.

Sanitary standards vary widely across wet markets. Many feature excellent health risk management, while others have wild and domestic animals crowded together in unsanitary conditions. Wet markets exist around the world including in countries such as Sweden, where they are well-governed and managed. We even have wet markets in Australia—for example, the Melbourne and Sydney Fish Markets.   

Wet markets are an important source of fresh food and livelihood for millions of people in East Asia, West Africa and globally. They connect low income farmers directly with consumers, and are often considered a safer and more reliable source of food than larger supermarkets in countries with weak regulations. Many of these wet markets are also located away from large cities or towns, like in Cameroon’s Korup rainforest where villages are hours away from a supermarket or shopping complex.    

So, calling for a shutdown of all wet markets will likely not only affect millions of lives and livelihoods, but it is also likely to be unworkable and ineffective.


Three principles for preventing the next pandemic  

Our experience from researching and working in the policymaking, governance and enforcement of the wildlife trade internationally provide a number of insights for ensuring that something like COVID-19 never happens again.   

  1. Bans without local support mostly fail: Bans that do not consider the circumstances and needs of the people affected by them—and are not culturally sensitive—will most probably flounder. Failed bans lead to markets going underground, making them even more difficult to regulate and significantly more dangerous for disease emergence. 
  2. Focus on high-risk markets and species: A targeted approach that focuses on high-risk markets with poor sanitary practices (both in China and internationally) and high-risk species for emerging infectious diseases, such as horseshoe bats and great apes, is likely to reduce disease risk more effectively than a broad attempt at a blanket ban. 
  3. Ensure sustainability of new regulations and practices: Evidence of high-risk markets should be combined with consideration for different local contexts, cultural perceptions and values towards wildlife, wildlife trade and consumption. This is more likely to lead to sustainable solutions and policies with local buy-in, in which risks to public health, animal welfare, and conservation are effectively minimised. 

It is critical that we focus on the markets, species and production practices that pose the highest risk for public health concern. Homing in on better sanitation, identifying and better regulating high-risk markets such as those that sell both domestic and wild species in China and beyond would make a lot more sense, and is much more likely to reduce the risk of a future COVID-19-type destructive episode than calls for blanket bans. 


Dr. Duan Biggs

Duan Biggs is a Senior Research Fellow at the Environmental Futures Research Institute, and School of Environment and Science at Griffith University. He is the founder and lead of the applied research group, Resilient Conservation which focusses on a range of multi-disciplinary, applied conservation challenges including the illegal wildlife trade. 

Follow Duan on Twitter.

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