The focus is back on the Chinese wet markets. The exotic meat sold there mostly belongs to the endangered species. Bats, snakes, crocodiles, insects are sold in these market. All living animals apart humans are part of Chinese delicacy. Their traditional medicine uses animal parts and enzymes in cures. This has made it a cause of concern for health and environment experts. But the Chinese lifestyle and belief systems have made the authorities turn a blind eye.
The outbreak of the Wuhan Coronavirus is located to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. News reports have determined ‘patient 0’ to be a shrimp seller from the market. The spread of this zoonotic virus though is believed to have begin from horseshoe bats being sold in the market.
Questions have been raised and warnings have sounded about the dangers posed by Chinese wet markets. Health experts and wildlife activists have raised red flags about the spread of zoonotic viruses from these wet markets. A 2018 study by Chinese scientists recorded findings that a SARS-like coronavirus could spread from Chinese bats.
But the recent Wuhan Coronavirus is not the latest pandemic to be spread from the land of the dragon. The 2002 SARS pandemic also originated in China. The years 1957 and 1968 saw the origin of influenza pandemics in China. Speculations still arise on the role of China in the transmission of the Spanish Flu of 1918.
This begs for the question to be asked, why is China a host to so many epidemics? The answer to this question lies inside the Great Chinese Famine which coincided with Mao Zedong’s initiative of the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward was a five year plan announced by Chairman Mao to change the economic and societal structure of the country.
Zedong wanted to change the country of China from an agrarian economy to a Communist society. He wanted to use the money collected from rural taxation to fund the industrialisation of the countryside. The plan was to create a welfare state for the urban proletariat. To achieve this goal of his and increase agricultural yields, the government took over all private farming lands creating a state monopoly.
The officials appointed to oversee the program over filled the government quotas and collected agricultural surplus that in reality did not exist. The exaggerated claims made by Mao Zedong had to be met by the officers. During this period millions of sparrows were culled down to protect the yield. With the death of the sparrows, the insects and insecticides feasted on the crops ruining the farmers financially. This left the farmers without any food grains and they were left to starve.
Officials higher up in the Chinese Communist Party did not dare report the economic disaster that was wrought upon the Chinese citizens due to five year plan and blamed the weather for lower yields. This sustained policy created the Great Chinese Famine that resulted in millions of deaths. The estimates of the death toll of this man made disaster are in between 18 million to 45 million.
It is during this period of acute starvation the eating habits of the Chinese people underwent a transformation. To satisfy their pangs of hunger, they began to eat meat of any animal they could. Rats, dogs and any four legged animal in their vicinity became a source of food. Used to eating these animals over the years, it became a part of their diets. Once the financial situation stabilised the lure for the more exotic meat only grew.
Yang Jisheng, a former media professional who worked in the Chinese state’s news agency and a survivor of the Great Famine talking to the then China Correspondent of The Guardian, Tania Branigan about his to be released book Tombstone described the horrors of the famine.
People died in the family and they didn’t bury the person because they could still collect their food rations; they kept the bodies in bed and covered them up and the corpses were eaten by mice. People ate corpses and fought for the bodies. In Gansu they killed outsiders; people told me strangers passed through and they killed and ate them. And they ate their own children. Terrible. Too terrible.Yang Jisheng to The Guardian.
The famine changed the dietary habits of the people. The change in dietary habits is one of the reasons why China remains a hotspot for zoonotic viruses. Recently occurring pandemics that originated from China resulted in a study from the Mississippi State University.
The study proposed the South China region as an influenza epicentre. The pathogen that caused the H5N1 influenza outbreaks in the late 2000s and still does at regular intervals was discovered in farm geese in Guangdong in 1996. To combat these virus strains from becoming zoonotic and creating pandemics, the study suggested to keep the wet markets in check. It also recommended to safeguard the wildlife, territorial and aquatic, to reduce the occurrences of outbreak of epidemics and pandemics.
The words fell on deaf years. China in recent years made a case for the conservation of Pandas. It gained international support and won applause. But China’s protection of wildlife and maintaining ecological balance of the ecosystem is a sham. The exotic food habits have brought many animals to the verge of extinction.
One such animal is the pangolin. Being a delicacy in China and used in traditional China, the anteater has lost half its habitat satisfying the needs of the people. The Yulin dog festival in China sees thousands of dogs slaughtered over a ten day period every year. In the forests of Southern China region it is very hard to find a snake as most of them have been used up as food or as a medicine. The Chinese believe that a snake penis helps cure impotency.
Today, the globe is battling the crisis created by the Wuhan Coronavirus. China during its efforts to contain the outbreak locally banned the wet markets. Now since the government has announced it has succeeded in containing the outbreak, the wet markets are back in business. Considered to be the underbelly for a host of viruses, the wet markets in China are again putting the world at risk.