China is closing wildlife markets to curb the rapidly spreading new coronavirus.
Experts say that the first victims of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan appear to have had contact with animals in these markets.
The markets are called “wet markets,” because the floors are often wet. The markets contain both wild and dead animals. Blood from the dead animals on sale sometimes mingles with water, creating unhygienic conditions for both sellers and consumers.
China has in the past banned such markets, but they later reappeared as black markets.
It has been difficult to control the markets in the past partly because of popular demand. Some Chinese believe that animal parts can be turned into foods or drinks that have medicinal value, although scientific evidence to support such a belief is lacking.
The main consumers appear to be middle-class Chinese who can afford to pay for exotic animals.
David Quammen is a writer who made himself an expert on viruses that originate in animals but that can spread to humans.
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) on Feb. 5, Quammen said that the current coronavirus is “still very unpredictable.”
He added that it hasn’t helped that the Chinese government was slow to react following the first reports that came in December from doctors in Wuhan.
Quammen said that having both dead and live animals closely packed together in Wuhan’s wet markets had created a kind of “mixing bowl for viruses.”
What sparked Quammen’s interest in doing research on this subject?
He explains that it started during a trip that he made to Brisbane, Australia, where he visited a horse farm where horses were falling ill with fevers and dying. A man tending to the horses had also died, and it took months to discover that the cause was a virus that traveled from a tree-dwelling bat to a horse and then from a horse to the man.
The bats had lived undisturbed for centuries in Queensland’s eucalyptus forests.
As a result of his findings, Quammen wrote a book titled Spillover, which concludes that as humans destroy ancient ecosystems they “encounter strange and dangerous infections that originate in animals but can be transmitted to humans.”
“Diseases that were contained are being set free, and the results are potentially catastrophic,” he says.
When the first victims of the coronavirus appeared in mid-December of last year the cause was probably animals in the wet markets, Quammen concludes.
The World Health Organization said on Feb. 6 that it was still too early to declare a peak in the spread of the virus.
In 2003, a coronavirus known as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, appeared in China. The symptoms included coughing, fever, and in some cases pneumonia.
SARS killed 8,098 people and killed 774 before it was contained.
At least 41,000 people in China have been infected by the virus, according to the Hong Kong-based Asia Times. Meanwhile, the death toll has now reached more than 900, thus greatly exceeding the number killed by SARS.
When it comes to foreigners, one American in Wuhan died after being infected with the virus.
The Asia Times said that the only fatalities outside mainland China have been a Chinese man in the Philippines and another in Hong Kong.
Chinese government was slow to react
Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor in Wuhan, warned early on that the coronavirus was spreading in the central Chinese city. But as The New York Times’ Chris Buckley described it, both medical officials and the police called Li in for a middle-of-the-night reprimand and forced him to sign a statement denouncing his warning as unfounded.
Li died on Feb. 7 after he himself contracted the virus. “Even before his death,” says Buckley in a report from Wuhan, “Dr. Li had become a hero to many Chinese after word of his treatment at the hands of the authorities emerged.”
When the central government finally acknowledged the viral threat that Li had warned about, it resorted to “increasingly extreme measures” to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus,” according to another report from Wuhan published by the Times
Those measures included “house-to-house searches, rounding up the sick, and warehousing them in enormous quarantine centers.”
Perhaps the most comprehensive report on the virus’s origins and impact came from a team of reporters sent to Wuhan by The Financial Times.
Piecing together the timing of events and the accounts of medical experts, three of the newspaper’s reporters concluded that the local government in Wuhan “knew about the risks from the coronavirus long before it took action.”
“The delay,” they said, “allowed the disease to spread much more widely.”
On Jan. 18, roughly six weeks after the virus began to spread, the Baibuting district in Wuhan went ahead with annual mass banquets in an attempt to break a world record for the number of dishes served.
Long tables were laid out with a total of 13,986 dishes, some bearing names such as Motherland in My Heart, made of cucumber and ham.
The Financial Times said that the Baibuting banquets “now stand as a symbol of China’s mishandling” of the coronavirus outbreak.
It describes the ensuing epidemic as the “biggest crisis to have hit Xi Jinping, China’s Communist Party leader, since he took power in 2012.”
It has also undermined the Part’s “aura of competence,” the Financial Times said.
As for the Baibuting district, it now faces a “rising toll” of infected citizens.
Photographs show notices saying “fever block” in red and black letters on 57 communal stairwells in the district.
The Washington Post’s Gerry Shih reported that in the early stages when the Wuhan outbreak “exploded into an international emergency,” it set off “a swell of outrage in China, where citizens have long chafed at the government’s penchant for snuffing out any speech deemed threatening to social stability.”
Shih reported that in recent weeks, investigative-minded news outlets such as Caijing had “detailed the haphazard public health response by officials in Wuhan at the center of the outbreak….”
Sanlian Zhoukan, or Life Week, described how doctors in Wuhan lacked supplies.
Shih said that readers had been digesting “a slew of hard-hitting and plucky reports by the country’s fading journalism industry.”
But with the government now tightening control over news reports, it appears that this “flicker of free speech in China,” as the Post described it, won’t last much longer.
As the world adds up the costs of the epidemic that is spreading outside Wuhan, the World Health Organization (WHO) is also facing criticism. According to the Financial Times, the WHO declared a global health emergency on January 30, by which time the virus had spread well beyond China.
John MacKenzie, a member of the WHO’s emergency committee, blamed China for the slow response from the international organization. He told the FT that “China must have been withholding information on new cases from the WHO.
“Had they been a bit stronger earlier on, they might have been able to restrict the number of cases not only in China but also overseas,” he said.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.