Traditional markets blamed for virus outbreak are lifeline for Asia's poor

BANGKOK, Feb 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of poor farmers and workers will lose access to a cheap and easy way to buy and sell fresh food if Asian cities clamp down on traditional wet markets in the wake of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, analysts warned on Friday.

Wet markets, which are a series of stalls that sell fresh vegetables and fruits, live fish, chickens and other meats, are named after the melting of ice used to preserve goods and the washing of floors to clean blood and entrails.

They have come under closer scrutiny in recent weeks after the coronavirus outbreak was linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, China.

That market was shut down, and authorities said they would ban illegal wildlife trade and tighten supervision of wet markets, as a debate raged on social media on whether all wet markets should be closed.

“Wet markets are part of the local culture in Asia, as people believe that meat and produce sold there is fresher and cheaper than in modern retail outlets,” said Pavida Pananond, an associate professor of international business at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Across Asia, governments here keen to modernise their cities increasingly view street vendors and informal markets as a hindrance, and as usurpers of public spaces meant for formal businesses and wealthy residents.

From Bangkok to Manila, authorities are pushing vendors into designated zones and imposing restrictions on informal markets.

The 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which started in China and killed about 800 people, was believed to have emerged from wet markets.

Now the coronavirus, which has led to more than 600 deaths and 30,000 cases, may be used as another reason to tighten controls, although no Southeast Asian nation has declared a shutdown of wet markets.

These traditional markets are a lifeline for millions of small farmers, vendors and small businesses said Pavida, adding that shuttering them would have a significant economic and cultural impact on poorer consumers.

“It will be difficult to completely replace them as they serve consumers at the lower end of purchasing power, not to mention their cultural preference,” she said.


Singapore has long banned the trade of wild animals and slaughter of poultry in markets, and has now issued advisories for “high standards of hygiene and cleanliness”, said a spokesman for the National Environment Agency (NEA), which manages 83 markets across the city-state.

The NEA aims to improve markets “so that they remain social spaces where residents of diverse backgrounds can meet and interact while purchasing affordable household groceries and fresh produce in a clean and hygienic environment,” he said.

Wet markets have survived because of culinary traditions that call for freshly slaughtered meat and fish as opposed to frozen meats, said Seshan Ramaswami, an associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University.

“I don’t think the tradition will collapse because of this outbreak. At best, it might lead to more stringent inspection at the source, or much tighter controls when live animals are being traded,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Any shutdown of wet markets would have a big socio-economic impact and must be done gradually as it may lead to increased food insecurity, said Masami Takeuchi, a food safety officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Wet markets have been a part of life for many, many centuries. In 2020, they are still an essential part of the culture,” she said.

“Obviously there are many challenges in the area of food safety, but with good practices, effective regulation and good inspection schemes, modernisation is possible,” she said.