Why Blaming COVID-19 On 'Bat Eating' And Wet Markets Is Racist And Inaccurate

Many thought Bryan Adams' recent comments were harmful and ignorant. His statements were also incorrect.

Warning: Graphic language.

In a strange social media rant Bryan Adams chose to post to both Twitter and Instagram on Monday night (boomers!), he railed against “some fucking bat eating, wet market animal selling, virus making greedy bastards” for the spread of COVID-19.

It’s possible Adams doesn’t see anything racist in what he said. And judging by many of the social media responses Adams received, a lot of people agree with his stance. But many Canadians, Chinese and of all backgrounds, were frustrated, hurt and angered.

“It’s another one with this kind of high-profile status,” Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, told City News. “This is going to trigger even more vile and more rampant racist acts against Chinese-Canadians and Asian-Canadians.”

Adams’s original post contained references to a lot of inaccurate information that are worth looking at closely. Why do people feel his statements were racist? Let’s unpack that, too.

Claim: The COVID-19 pandemic started at a “wet market” in Wuhan, China

Fact: We don’t yet know where the virus originated

The first 41 identified cases of COVID-19 in China included a group of 27 patients who were found to have exposure to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of China’s outbreak.

For that reason, several early news reports suggested the novel coronavirus originated in the market, where live animals and seafood are sold alongside other meat and poultry.

But, 13 of the patients in that first batch of cases were not connected at all to the market, according to a study on those 41 patients in the Lancet Journal.

In fact, the very first case was reported on Dec. 1, 2019, and that patient had no exposure to the seafood market, Science magazine explains from the Lancet study.

“The virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace,” Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, told Science.

And, none of the animal samples tested from the market had the virus, scientists from the University of Hong Kong found. Their research suggested “the possibility of an alternative source.”

Vendors wear face masks as they offer prawns for sale at the Wuhan Baishazhou Market in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province.
Vendors wear face masks as they offer prawns for sale at the Wuhan Baishazhou Market in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province.

Claim: COVID-19 spread from animals to humans by people eating bats

Fact: Stories about bat-eating have been debunked

Yes, the SARS CoV-2 virus shares 96 per cent of its genome with a coronavirus found in bats. But, scientists still don’t understand how it made the jump to humans, and the claims that it came from people eating bats were disproven.

In the early days of the virus, a widely-circulated video appeared to show a woman eating “bat soup.” But, it turned out that video was from 2016, long before the outbreak, and it wasn’t even from China — it was actually filmed on Palau, a small island country in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines.

No one yet knows how the coronavirus spread from animals to humans — that’s one of the big mysteries of the virus at this point.

Claim: It’s gross and unsanitary to eat wild animals

Fact: People in countries all over the world — including Canada — eat wildlife

Adams is vegan, so he’s against all animal consumption, something he made very clear in his post. But, focusing specifically on “bats” is where racism comes into play, and where some common ideas about how people in China eat can go wrong.

Hunting, slaughtering and selling wild animal meat is something we do here in Canada, too. It’s regulated by province, and not super-common, but chefs and culinary experts are arguing for expanded access.

Eating wild moose, for instance, tastes better — and is arguably more ethical — than eating factory farm meat, chef Todd Perrin of St. John’s, Nfld. told the Globe and Mail.

“You’re talking about an animal that’s not farm-raised, not fed any medication or wacky feed,” he said. “It’s eating naturally, in a natural environment. It lives a free life until the moment the hunter takes it.”

The conversation about health and ethics that Adams wants to have about wet markets in China is one that we could also have about our own food habits. There are nearly 200,000 commercial farms in Canada, and while those numbers are going down, farms are continuing to get larger.

The details of the animals are mistreated at many factory farms are easy to find online and very disturbing. Factory farms also produce a huge amount of waste and contribute to carbon emissions in a significant way. And they also feed and employ Canadians. The issues are complex and complicated, and it can be tempting to pass judgement on others without looking at our own habits.

Peameal bacon sandwiches are served during a food tour in Toronto.
Peameal bacon sandwiches are served during a food tour in Toronto.

The divide between animals that are acceptable to eat and those considered gross or unacceptable is subjective and influenced by cultural and social norms.

Yes, for many people living in Canada, eating pigs’ feet is unfamiliar, although we do eat pigs’ jowls, loin, belly, legs, and rib meat. But the way many of us think about pigs’ feet is the way many people in most parts of China would feel about eating lamb, or uncooked vegetables. None of these foods are objectively bad or weird, but we’ll feel differently about them given where we grew up.

And foodborne illness is definitely not reserved to foods eaten in East Asia. Poultry, milk, eggs, and contaminated fruits and vegetables are all common causes of food poisoning in Canada, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.

Claim: Wet markets should be banned

Fact: Wet markets and wildlife markets aren’t the same thing

Wet markets — which have been criticized by other celebrities, including Paul McCartney — are sometimes misunderstood. There’s been some conflation in a lot of North American media of wet markets with wildlife markets, which just sell wild animals.

For the most part, wet markets are similar to what we call farmer’s markets, and include open-air stalls selling fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, and sometimes live animals. They’re still open, as they’re a significant source of affordable food for many Chinese people, according to National Geographic.

Wet markets sometimes involve the slaughter of live animals for sale, but they rarely sell wild animals. The Wuhan market did, and it’s true that the trade of wild animals can, in some cases, cause animal-borne diseases to transfer to humans. But China temporarily banned the sale of wild animals in January, shutting down wildlife markets and taking that aspect away from wet markets. The Wuhan market was reportedly found not to have sold bats (although again, the stories of people eating bats have been debunked).

People shopping at a wet market as residents in Mei Foo in Hong Kong.
People shopping at a wet market as residents in Mei Foo in Hong Kong.

Claim: Chinese people and immigrants are “dirty”

Fact: False statements like this drive Anti-Asian racism

One of the pervasive stereotypes many North Americans have about immigrants is that they’re “dirty.” Despite that kind of rhetoric, studies show that immigrants have not in fact been responsible for importing disease.

People from East Asian countries, in particular, have been subject to this kind of racist language for centuries. A Foreign Policy article unearthed quotes from the New York Daily Tribune in 1854, which called Chinese people “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has fought to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” despite the 2015 World Health Organization guidelines on naming infectious diseases, which warn against naming them after people, animal-types or geographic regions, because it can cause people to think the person, place or animal is the cause of the disease, and have severe negative impacts.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn incorrectly stated that MERS and swine flu originated in China. MERS was first detected in Saudi Arabia, and swine flu in the U.S.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn incorrectly stated that MERS and swine flu originated in China. MERS was first detected in Saudi Arabia, and swine flu in the U.S.

Texas senator John Cornyn defended Trump’s statements with false claims of his own: “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” he said. “These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu, and now the coronavirus.”

Cornyn is incorrect. As NBC News pointed out, MERS originated in Saudi Arabia, and the H1N1 was first detected in the U.S.

The anti-Chinese sentiment expressed by the U.S. president and others has had horrible real-life implications. Hate crimes against Asian people rising quickly in the U.S., with cases piling up in Canada, too.

Claim: Chinese people are to blame for this pandemic

Fact: We all want someone to blame

It’s a human instinct, when something horrible happens, to blame someone. It can provide a sense of comfort to direct our fear and anger at a specific target. But the truth about the transmission of the coronavirus is that there isn’t any one particular guilty party.

The millions of people living, working and raising families in Wuhan didn’t ask for the virus. Like people in Italy and Iran and Canada — all over the world — they’ve suffered a lot.

“Recent times have been marked by natural disasters,” Debbie Lu, a brand strategist who splits her time between Toronto and her hometown of Wuhan, told HuffPost Canada earlier this year.

“The fires in Australia, the earthquake in Turkey. The world has responded by sending help and showing unequivocal support. Yet Wuhan doesn’t receive the same compassion. The people dying here are innocent. We deserve the same support as those suffering in natural disasters.”

“Unfairly assigning blame to someone else distracts us from our negative feelings, which are replaced by "a crude but consoling sense of affirmation and self-righteous indignation.””

- Psychology Today

The way governments, including the Chinese government, have reacted can and should be criticized. People deliberately ignoring social distancing guidelines should face consequences. But the virus itself, as horrific and destructive as it is, is frustrating in that isn’t anyone’s fault.

But, we still want to blame someone. It helps us feel in control of a situation that is largely out of our control.

Unfairly assigning blame to a person or group allows people to discharge or distract from negative feelings, according to Psychology Today, “which are replaced or overtaken by a crude but consoling sense of affirmation and self-righteous indignation.”

Consolation is something a lot of people need right now. It’s more satisfying to blame someone else than to accept how little control we have over what’s happening.

The way Black people are being treated in China shows how pervasive the urge to scapegoat can be

While anti-Asian sentiment has been on the rise in North America and elsewhere, China has also taken part in the scapegoating of a minority racial group.

Within the country, blame for the coronavirus has unfairly been placed on African immigrants. Last month a McDonald’s in Guangzhou was forced to apologize after banning Black people from entering. As COVID-19 cases increased, Guangzhou — which hosts a lot of immigrants from African countries — saw more and more anti-foreigner sentiment, culminating incidents of anti-Black racism.

CNN reported that dozens of Africans living in the city had been evicted and subsequently turned away from hotels. Others were forced to quarantine for two weeks, even if they had no symptoms and hadn’t been in contact with anyone who was sick.

Scapegoating is so powerful, and can escalate so quickly, because the group that’s victimized is always an easy group to target that can’t effectively fight back.

As French theorist René Girard explained it, the victim is hardly ever chosen because they’re actually responsible for any wrongdoing — and if they are, that’s an accident.

Their most important traits are that they’re easy victims who won’t retaliate.

Bryan Adams made ignorant statements. He’s not alone. Very many of us, probably almost everyone, has inadvertently been insensitive because we just didn’t know better. Maybe that’s the case for him, maybe not.

If he wants to learn about some of his blind spots, this is a great opportunity, for him and for a lot of us.

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