Wuhan's 'wet markets' are back in business

Wet markets are how the majority of Chinese get fresh produce at low prices.

April 17, 2020, 6:07 AM

Even as the Chinese city of Wuhan emerges from its 76-day lockdown, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the first cluster of COVID-19 was detected in December, remains shuttered and heavily guarded.

Wuhan's other so-called “wet markets,” however, are now back in business as residents adjust to a new normal.

“A wet market is a very generic name where they sell fresh food, a wide range of food -- vegetables, fruit, meat, noodles. The main items purchased at wet markets are vegetables,” Emma Teng, a professor of Chinese culture at MIT, told ABC News. "It’s exactly like farmers' markets here.”

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ABC News visited one of the largest markets in the city, the Baishazhou Agricultural Products Market, in a different area of Wuhan. This market remained open throughout the outbreak to provide fresh produce for Wuhan residents quarantined inside their homes.

According to China Daily, a state-owned English newspaper, 2,300 tons of fresh produce and meat were being purchased daily at the Baishazhou Market at the height of Wuhan’s lockdown in mid-February. Purchases were delivered to local residential communities and then distributed to homes by volunteers.

PHOTO: A man wearing a face mask holds a fish in a market in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on April 7, 2020.
A man wearing a face mask holds a fish in a market in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on April 7, 2020.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Though the first outbreak was detected at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the exact origin of COVID-19 is still unconfirmed, Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, told ABC News. Perlman leads research on three forms of coronavirus -- SARS, MERS, and COVID-19.

Experts do know this much: "Many of the patients at the epicenter of the outbreak ... had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the CDC says COVID-19 belongs to a cluster of viruses that originate in bats, Perlman said the virus hasn’t yet been found in that animal.

“I think that it went through an intermediary animal, but this is speculative,” he said. Perlman added that “proximity is key” in the transmission of the disease from an animal to a human.

PHOTO: Workers wearing facemasks make a barbecue at a market in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on April 4, 2020.
Workers wearing facemasks make a barbecue at a market in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on April 4, 2020.
Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese government recently stopped the sale and consumption of wild animals in response to the coronavirus. Propaganda banners now hang over the entrance to Baishazhou, proclaiming: "Resolutely ban live poultry sales and severely crackdown on wildlife trade!”

“Especially since Huanan got into trouble, our market has been strictly managed,” a meat vendor at Baishazhou told ABC News. “Nobody wants to become the second 'Huanan Market.' Everyone is scared.”

Teng said that the idea that there’s a prevalence of wildlife at wet markets is a Western misconception.

“It’s a very niche market,” she explained. “It’s a delicacy only eaten by people who have a lot of wealth, who want to flaunt that.”

Teng says it’s important to remember that “exotic wildlife just means things we’re not accustomed to eating,” naming horse meat as an example of something that's unacceptable in the U.S. but acceptable in parts of Europe. “We need to take that culture by culture,” she said.

“Chinese people like to have their food very fresh as opposed to a big grocery store where it’s all mass-produced and mass distributed,” she said. “There’s also a large attempt to implement stringent hygiene measures … They’re very cautious in China. They’ve had a lot of bad experiences with [these diseases] -- a huge economic loss and also food supply … there’s a huge impact.”

What to know about coronavirus:

In February, China announced it would temporarily ban on all farming and consumption of “terrestrial wildlife of important ecological, scientific and social value,” including snakes and bats.

A billboard currently on display in the Baishazhou Market says that 10 cases of COVID-19 have been detected on-site, though it's unclear if the infected were market vendors or customers. The sick have recovered, according to the billboard.

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