Looking Beyond Pangolins and Chinese ‘Wet Markets’ to a Culture of Racial Bias

The spread of Covid-19 exposes, exacerbates, and weaponizes existing socioeconomic inequities.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

In a recent article, I described how emerging infectious diseases are linked to biodiversity loss and tropical forest destruction, noting that the most likely origin of the novel coronavirus is in the illegal trade in pangolins and other animals in the markets of Wuhan, China.

photo of pike's place
A “wet markets” is just a place where people shop, like Pike Place market in Seattle and the farmers markets in the upper crust areas of most US cities. Photo by Kyle Taylor.

But any treatment of the ecological origins of emerging diseases is incomplete without also considering the economic and social conditions that accompany such diseases. In the US, where racism and xenophobia are the rule rather than the exception, diseases emerging from countries in the global South and particularly from China trigger existing biases—with horrific results. In the months since the coronavirus outbreak Asian Americans have been targeted by violent racist attacks and at least one person has been killed. Efforts to keep ourselves and each other safe from the effects of this virus should include confronting and preventing the racism and xenophobia that unfortunately accompany it.

A quick news round-up illustrates how the spread of the disease itself is entrenching our divisions. Just over a week ago, The New York Times reported the unsurprising fact that the wealthy and the middle class are able to shelter in place, stock up on supplies, and social distance in ways not possible for the working poor, let alone the country’s half a million homeless people. Then there are the country’s 2.5 million farmworkers, many of whom live in, in the words of Greg Asbed, Founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “conditions of grinding poverty and neglect that will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus.” For the 2.3 million incarcerated people, and those living the nightmare of immigration detention centers, the danger is unimaginably worse due to their inability to social distance in cramped living conditions. But even outside of the nation’s prisons, farms and homeless encampments are the 27 million people without health insurance and the 23 million who live paycheck to paycheck.

In short, the spread of Covid-19 exposes, exacerbates, and weaponizes existing socioeconomic inequities.

It is painfully clear that the spread of the disease is making existing class inequities more dire, and that racial divisions play a role. Indeed, the very ground in which this malignant seed is sown has been fertilized with racism at the highest levels. Look no further than Trump’s “Chinese virus” narrative, the White House official who dubbed Coronavirus the “Kung flu,” or the comments of Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn who squarely blamed Covid-19 on China, saying the country has a “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”

Opportunistic racism has always found fertile ground in epidemics. One recent example was the discrimination faced by Africans in the US during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. This was why, when interviewing the Liberian environmentalist Silas Siakor about the link between Ebola and deforestation at the time, we focused on understanding not only the pathology of the disease, but also the political and economic conditions that helped Ebola emerge and spread.

That the origin of Covid-19 may track to a Chinese “wet market” — a market where live animals including animals poached from the wild were slaughtered and sold — offers easy fodder for the likes of Trump and Senator Cornyn to indulge in racist slurs.

Why We Shouldn’t Push for a Closure of China’s ‘Wet Markets’ 

We should focus instead on getting wild and exotic animals out of what are essentially the Eastern equivalent farmers markets.

D Pei Wu, a longtime environmental and racial justice advocate and PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, points out that such a narrative falls squarely into “a long history of using disease and “public health” as a way to control Asian Americans and specifically Chinese bodies in the US, and to eliminate competition with white-owned businesses.” Wu cites the coercive quarantine of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900 as an early example.

“It’s like a pre-existing rabbit-hole of anti-Chinese perception that exists in US culture,” says Wu. “That’s the racist dog-whistle here.”

Wu points out that the cultural problem begins with the willful misinterpretation of what a wet market actually is.

“It’s just a place where people shop, like Pike Place market in Seattle and markets in the upper crust areas of most US cities. So-called ‘wet-markets’ are everywhere in the world. Yes, some of them sell the illegal animal parts, but the majority just sell fresh produce, seafood, fruit and veggies — which is how most people in the world buy food, rather than through global supply chains.”

“Folks have been buying local long before it was fancy,” Wu points out. “In many places where refrigerated planes and trucks don’t reach, it’s a simple necessity.” (This video of an American chef in China is also helpful in seeing that a wet market is, well, just a market.)

Andrew Liu, writing in N+1, unpacks the larger role of markets in the economic sense, arguing that “the story of the spread of the coronavirus cannot be disentangled from the role of the market in our world today.” Liu also debunks the notion that the consumption of illicit wildlife is based on “weird” Chinese eating customs or Traditional Chinese Medicine, but rather on the impulse towards conspicuous consumption in a globalized market.

The scales of the pangolin, a small, anteater-like mammal found across Asia and Africa, appear in traditional Chinese medical texts as long ago as 500 CE, and today the scales sell for about $3000 a pound. Pangolin meat, sold for about $150 a pound, is also eaten as a delicacy by the very rich in parts of China and Vietnam.

“So,” Liu asks, “was the consumption of pangolin a residue of unchanging, primitive Chinese custom? If so, would we have to concede that the novel coronavirus is indeed a peculiarly Chinese disease?”

Liu’s answer is a resounding no: “While remedies [like acupuncture, massage and herbal formulas] have existed in Asia for centuries, market prices and cross-border activity have transformed modest practices and local tastes into big business…opportunities for illicit trade and made many in China rich. The rich were more than willing to seek new culinary adventures by way of that trade, as conspicuous consumption became the ultimate marker of class advancement.”

In short, Liu points out that while pangolins and hundreds of other animals have a long history of medicinal use in China, it’s globalization and newfound wealth that have pushed them into restaurant freezers and onto endangered species lists.

A recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times points out that the Chinese trade in wildlife is a $73 billion industry that employs more than 14 million people. Chinese authorities have taken some steps to crack down on wildlife trafficking, but there is a lot more they can do. Nevertheless, it takes an act of conscious racism to take a Chinese government policy and the simple logistics of global trade and transport and translate it into rhetoric about “a Chinese disease” — rhetoric that endangers Asian Americans and perpetuates hate crimes.

One of the most abusive aspects of the Trump administration has been the toxic combination of xenophobic policies like the Muslim ban and the criminalization of immigrants, combined with his use of racist dog-whistling to stoke white nationalist violence. Even as Trump and his cronies horribly mismanage this crisis, it’s important that we understand not only the root causes of the virus itself, but also the ways in which it is being used to bring out the worst in us and our compatriots. And then let’s turn our healing into resistance against future acts of hate.


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