If you have ever been to a shopping area where butchers and grocers sell fresh produce straight from the farm, then you have been to something that would, in some parts of the world, be called a wet market.
That might be surprising – because recently the term wet market has become almost synonymous with Covid-19 for some people in the West.
The novel coronavirus, which has infected close to 2 million people globally, is believed to have originated in a wet market in the city of Wuhan, where wild animals such as porcupines and deer were being sold and slaughtered for food and medicine.
Speaking on April 3, the US’ top infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, told Fox News that all wet markets should be “shut down right away,” saying he couldn’t understand why they were still open.
But wet markets, as opposed to dry markets, which sell non-perishable goods such as grain or household products, are simply places that offer a wide range of fresh produce. Some, but not all, also sell live animals. They are referred to as “wet” owing to the fact that floors are often hosed down after vendors wash vegetables or clean fish.
Wet markets that sell live animals can risk creating the types of dangerous conditions where viruses can spread from animals to humans, due to the close quarters and potentially unsanitary practices – especially, if they keep rare animals or those captured from the wild, experts say.
The 2003 SARS epidemic, for example, was linked to the sale of civet cats in Guangdong province.
Most wet markets, however, are not virus petri-dishes filled with exotic animals ready to be slaughtered.
For a large proportion of people in China and across Asia, they are just places to go to buy fresh food, such as chicken, pork, fish and vegetables, at affordable prices.
Billion-dollar wildlife trade
Wet markets are a common sight not just in mainland China but across Asia.
In Hong Kong, for example, there is a widespread network of wet markets where thousands of locals shop everyday for their meat and vegetables. There is one in almost every district and none of them trade in exotic or wild animals.
Similar markets can also be found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Some wet markets, however, can provide an outlet for the trade in exotic wildlife, which according to a 2017 Chinese government report was worth more than $73 billion.
But the trade, while lucrative, is by no means mainstream. The consumption of wild meats is not common, especially in big cities, and consumers often have to travel to specific sites to purchase rare or exotic animals.
After SARS authorities in several provinces tried to tackle the wildlife trade, banning the sale of some animals such as civet cats and snakes, but many of the bans either weren’t enforced or were quietly removed.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese government temporarily banned the trade of wild animals for food in l