Irresponsible wet market practices led to COVID-19. China hasn’t learned its lesson ǀ ViewComments
If another country accidentally unleashed a weapon of mass destruction, and it killed almost 200,000 people worldwide (including 60,000 Americans), there would be international outrage and urgent calls for that country to cease any and all activities related to that weapon and to conform to new, strict, immediate measures for transparency and constraints.
Unfortunately, despite the dangerous and unsanitary practices in China’s so-called “wet markets” that likely spawned the unfolding, historic pandemic, China has decided to reopen those markets. A Wuhan wet market, offering live wild animals for sale, may have been the origin of the COVID-19 virus. Admittedly, China’s wet markets are not designed to kill human beings, but like other "weapons of mass destruction", it appears they have done so on a global scale nonetheless. Moreover, this is the second such pandemic to have emerged from the Chinese wet markets within the last 20 years.
Although China in February 2020 imposed a ban on the trade in live wild animals, it remains unclear whether this ban is being fully enforced. (Some of China’s wet markets have offered live wild animals to customers as food. After sale, the animals are slaughtered on premise. The list of animals offered by such markets, including the market in Wuhan, has included wolf cubs, civet cats, snakes, bats, pangolins, turtles, and many other species.) China’s government has refused to shutter its wet markets permanently. Rather, it has reopened them, now ostensibly without wild animals for sale, while promoting their cleanliness.
This refusal constitutes irresponsible and dangerous behaviour by the current leadership of the government of China. This is not the first time in this crisis that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ignored the broader good of its own people - and the global community - in favour of protecting its own power. At the outset of the crisis, the CCP also censored and imprisoned Chinese medical professionals in Wuhan who were reporting on the new virus. It also took a wide range of other measures to suppress information while also putting out its own misinformation (such as the falsehood that there was no human-to-human transmission). The rest of the world lost precious time, and many lives, as the government did whatever it could to try to save face.
There’s nothing that can be done about such previous missteps. Going forward, in addition to continuing to take extraordinary measures to save lives in every country already affected, as well as racing to develop a vaccine, the international community also should turn its attention to preventing a near and long-term recurrence of the virus from China’s wet markets and other sources of infectious risk as well, extending beyond China to the rest of Asia and the entire world.
There are a wide range of actions that could be put into motion today that would advance these ends. All of these should be focused on the central problem, which is to eliminate those activities - including the wildlife trade in China’s wet markets - that create reckless and unnecessary forms of risk to global public health and safety.
There is good precedent here. Toward the end of the Cold War, when the United States and Russia became increasingly concerned about the “loose nukes” problem on the territory of the former Soviet Union, bipartisan US leaders worked together to convince the new republics of the former Soviet Union to return their nuclear weapons to the new Russian Federation. These same leaders created the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme to work with Russia and the new republics to reduce nuclear, chemical, and biological stockpiles, fund security for former weapons materials, and provide gainful employment for ex-nuclear scientists.
Now, in a different era and for a different threat, the United States and its allies and partners across the world, all of whom have lost citizens and vast economic output to the virus, should engage the People’s Republic of China regarding actions that are needed to lessen the pandemic threat, whether emanating from Chinese territory territory or from other places that engage in similarly risky behavior (intentional or otherwise).
First, the US should convene the UN Security Council (UNSC) for an emergency session (virtually) in order to engage with China and others to seek an immediate cessation of all wet-market activities around the world, provide transparency on that cessation, facilitate international inspection of all relevant sites, and agree to international norms that would once and for all restrict such activities worldwide. As China has a UNSC veto, it is imperative to frame the problem in risk mitigation terms, i.e. in order to prevent future pandemics, the entire world must take decisive action with regard to these markets in China and elsewhere.
Second, the UNSC session should be a beginning, not an end. As the global community came together in previous eras and agreed to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, negotiations among the world’s powers should begin immediately to establish the appropriate and necessary provisions for a ban on wet market activities worldwide. There is an urgent need for both international surveillance and for country compliance to greatly reduce the chances of the next global pandemic. Subsequent activities to further build consensus on an enforceable ban on wet markets, on both health and ecological grounds, should include convening important Asian regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) and an East Asia Summit. An action plan resulting from such meetings could be taken to the G20.
As bad as the wet markets are, the difficulty is that they are just one problem within a much bigger global public health challenge. The wild animals that are sold and slaughtered in wet markets, including the bats and pangolins that might have transmitted the virus to humans, are part of a vast illicit global wildlife trade. Shutting down the wet markets, therefore, addresses only one piece of the puzzle. Wildlife conservation should be higher on the global agenda, with greater urgency from the United States, China, Europe, and governments across the global south to tackle it. Measures should be aimed at a dramatic reduction in the illicit trade in wild animals and an equally dramatic improvement in the protection of the ecosystems that are their home. For instance, governments should push for expansion of the post-2020 Convention on Biological Diversity, slated for renewal this autumn. All of these measures would be aimed at reducing the risk of pandemics arising from zoonotic disease transmission, in particular from exotic wildlife species to humans.
Even as the global community is racing with the utmost urgency to share data on the virus and develop an effective vaccine to limit the number of dead from the current outbreak, the need to prevent a recurrence of the type of irresponsible practices that launched COVID-19 is equally urgent. These suggestions have nothing to do with punishing the CCP. The goal is to induce the Chinese government to become a global partner in this effort; for example, there already may be an appetite to turn its temporary wildlife trade ban into a permanent and fully enforced one, enshrining the ban in domestic law.
The entire world needs to do everything it can to prevent the recurrence of another global pandemic.
Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
Peter Engelke is a Deputy Director and Senior Fellow within the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security.
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