Why China’s wildlife trade ban will help, but not stop, coronavirus

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China’s decision to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals is the country’s latest bid to win the coronavirus fight.

It’s a welcome development, but one experts say faces significant hurdles.

“The concern is enforcement. How effective will government enforcement be?” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of global health studies at Seton Hall University.

“But there’s a way of thinking in China. The norm is that those live animals are more delicious, that they’re better for you. That’s very much entrenched in China.

“So you also have to replace a way of thinking.”

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The new virus sweeping the world is believed to have started in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where, like many other markets in Asia, bats, snakes, civets and other animals are tied up or stacked in cages. Many are killed on-site to ensure freshness, which is highly valued in Chinese culture and cuisine.

The markets are considered breeding grounds for new and dangerous infections, health experts say, because the close contact between humans and live exotic animals makes it easier for viruses to jump between species.

It’s believed SARS originated from the same type of market in 2002.

Now, as COVID-19 spreads throughout China and widely across borders, there has been a renewed focus on the practice.

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With two epidemics tied to these markets, it’s likely China is far more serious about enforcing the ban this time around, said Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in China.

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However, a ban isn’t a foolproof tactic, she said.

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“The government does have the capacity to really implement this policy, but having said that, it’s sort of like illicit drugs — the more you ban, the more you encourage the development of the black market. That’s just the way economics works,” she told Global News.

During SARS, the Chinese government opted to ban the sales of exotic species, but the ban was later lifted. There was a crackdown on wildlife trafficking — tighter regulations and oversight — but it faded.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get rid of it altogether because typically these sales are very localized,” she said.

Tradition also stands in the way.

Wet markets are considered a traditional form of food retail in Asia. They have persisted across the continent, despite the growth of big-box grocers.

“The old norm needs to be replaced by a new norm, being that it’s a bad idea to consume these wild animals,” Huang said. “Not only because of the risk you take of getting infected, but also that it’s really not as delicious as something you’d get in a store.”

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He believes public education is what’s missing.

“Because of the scale and the seriousness of the problem, I think they might be more inclined to agree that eating and selling these animals is not a good idea, but it needs to be complemented with an education campaign,” he said.

“You need to teach people that it’s not a good idea. Government leaders need to come out and say, ‘This is bad for your health.’ We’re not seeing that right now.”

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COVID-19 and SARS are not the only viruses that can be traced back to animals. It’s believed Bird flu originated in chickens at a market in Hong Kong. Ebola is thought to be sourced from the killing and sale of bushmeat in Africa.

Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people, but all signs so far point to the now-shuttered Wuhan market.

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China moved to suspend the trade and consumption of wildlife in January. The complete ban was announced earlier this week, although it’s unclear if it’s permanent.

More than 1.5 million markets and online operators nationwide have been inspected since the outbreak began. About 3,700 have been shut down.

The government stipulates that those who disobey the ban will be “severely punished.”

Ong believes there’s “real resolve” from the government this time around.

While China would benefit from a “social awakening” on the dangers of wildlife markets, she said economics will likely prevail.

“Culture is one thing,” Ong said, “but the commercial value is another.”

“There is supply and there is demand,” she continued. “If people really believe in eating wildlife, they won’t hesitate to pay a higher price.”

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press

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