Absolutely Disgusting: Wet Markets, Stigma Theory, and Xenophobia

Absolutely Disgusting: Wet Markets, Stigma Theory, and Xenophobia

Since the initial descriptions of cases of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, there has been a persistent focus on “wet markets” and their role in spreading the virus. Wet markets are similar to farmers’ markets, offering stalls selling fresh meat and produce, with some markets featuring the slaughtering of animals on-site, which can – albeit infrequently – include wildlife. Following recent reports of wet markets reopening in China, Senator Lindsey Graham threatened the future of US-Chinese trade relations if Beijing did not shut wet markets down, describing them as “absolutely disgusting.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, echoed Graham’s call for the markets’ closure, arguing that the current pandemic is a “direct result” of the workings of the wet markets. In April, a bipartisan group of over sixty senators and congressional representatives called for a global ban on wet markets, identifying them as “a threat to global public health.” In an interview with Howard Stern, Paul McCartney described wet markets as “medieval,” comparing the need to ban them with the abolition of slavery.

The emphasis on wet markets as “disgusting,” “medieval,” and a threat to our epidemiological futures draws upon long-standing racist stereotypes about Chinese hygiene, diseases, animal welfare, and food practices. Critics have noted the rise in incidents of anti-Asian violence in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, citing influences such as President Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” as contributing to xenophobia and racism. But putting the president’s comments aside, examining this depiction of wet markets reveals another – more overlooked – way that racism and hatred is also circulating around coronavirus. The denigration of wet markets provides a stigma theory that rationalizes xenophobia and racism related to COVID-19.

Street Wet Market in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, Philippines. (Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr)

Stigma theory, as developed by sociologist Erving Goffman, is an ideological tool that explains why a particular negative quality can be applied to an entire group. The theory justifies actions taken on the basis of the stigma, such as segregation or discrimination, as its natural and unavoidable consequences.1 Currently, the fixation on wet markets and the ongoing description of such marketplaces as disgusting, disease-generating sites provides a stigma theory that justifies anti-Chinese sentiment in the wake of COVID-19. Should the concern about these markets continue in its current manner, it could prompt further anti-Asian acts or strain U.S. relations with Asian countries. It could also overshadow the significance of other factors in the spread of coronavirus around the world.

Looking back throughout history, a number of intersecting stigmas surrounding disease coalesce in the figure of the wet market. Anti-Asian racism and anti-Chinese xenophobia drove the segregated quarantining of San Francisco’s Chinatown during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1900. Following the spread of the plague from Hong Kong through Asia to California, white San Franciscans were free to move without restraint throughout the city, while public health authorities quarantined Chinese-American residents, pathologizing the Chinese community and their social and cultural practices, such as groups of bachelors living together, as the causes of the plague within the city.2 Throughout the nineteenth century, repeated pandemics of cholera inspired panic over the disease’s ability to thrive in conditions of poverty and despair, and its origins in India – a site of filth and immorality, in its Western critics’ eyes – inspired the name Asiatic cholera. Newspapers covered the advance of cholera from Asia to Europe and across the Atlantic with terror, continually invoking the threat that Eastern diseases held for Western civilization.3

“Dupon Gai” or Dupont Street now Grant Ave in Chinatown, San Francisco. (The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley/Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to specifically anti-Asian stigmas, the depiction of wet markets as the source of disease recalls histories of stigmas directed at members of othered groups for behaviors that dominant American society judged as wrong and dangerous. The plight of Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary, epitomizes the blame that society places on the perceived disseminators of disease. In the early 20th century, the New York City Board of Health subjected Mallon, a healthy typhoid carrier who refused to cease working as a cook, to decades of isolation on North Brother Island. Other healthy carriers did not face such extended quarantine, and historian Judy Leavitt argues that Mallon’s status as an Irish immigrant and an unmarried woman known to live with her male partner caused her discriminatory treatment.4 Mallon’s lifestyle, race, and class shaped her into an archetype for the willfully ignorant spreader of disease whose behavior is a threat to public health. Epidemiological study of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s found a cousin of Typhoid Mary in the discussion of Patient Zero, the epicenter of the epidemic. 1987’s And the Band Played On, the popular early history of AIDS, accused Gaétan Dugas, a gay flight attendant, of being Patient Zero, devoting signficant attentiont to Dugas’s sex life and supposed lack of concern over the risks associated with his behavior.5 Mallon and Dugas’s stories share qualities that their contemporaries deemed immoral and threatening, allowing them to be blamed for the disease outbreaks of the time. The wet market in China offers its own example of a supposedly disease-causing, arguably immoral behavior – the sale, slaughter, and consumption of wildlife – that, by the logic of this stigma theory, the Chinese should properly find disgusting.

What’s the reality behind these layers of stigma surrounding wet markets? Early reports from the WHO and the Chinese health authorities on the first cases of COVID-19 linked most cases to the seafood market in Wuhan, also known as a wet market. Speculation about why wet markets, as spaces in which many types of animals are confined, generate novel viruses was common in international press coverage. However, the epidemiological study of the initial outbreak published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine found that only 55% of the cases before January 1st were linked to this market.6 This along with evidence from genome sequencing leaves the market’s role in the emergence of the coronavirus undetermined – was the Wuhan seafood market the site of the virus’s jump from bat (or an intermediate animal) into a human?7 Or was the market merely an early site of human-to-human transmission?

A Chinese man stands in front of a table of fish outside.
Outdoor fish market in China Town, San Francisco, circa 1900. (D. H. Wulzen Glass Plate Negative Collection (SFP 40), San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public LibraryFlickr)

This uncertainty has not stopped the identification of wet markets as the problem that caused the current pandemic in the media, by politicians, celebrities, and, more informally, on Twitter.

But targeting wet markets as the source of future pandemics obscures the complexity of changing human-wildlife relationships in the 21st century and their role in disease emergence. Anthropogenic changes to the environment including industrial and residential development, habitat disruption and destruction, and agricultural practices introduce new opportunities for pathogens to jump from one species into another.8 Wet markets that feature many different wildlife in the same space provide one opportunity for such species jumps to occur, but so do logging, mining, road construction, and rapid urban growth.9 Zoonotic diseases may emerge from interactions between fruit bats and pig farms in Malaysia, as in the case of the Nipah virus, or alongside residential development in the formerly forested suburbs of Connecticut, like Lyme disease. Exclusively focusing on wet markets and coronavirus ignores the history and reality of disease ecology.

The call to close wet markets ignores the role of European travel in the virus’s transformation from local outbreak to pandemic. Travelers to and from Europe spread the disease globally, circumventing attempts to ban travel and infections from Asia as infections contracted in Italy returned to South Africa, Brazil, and Bangladesh. Genome analysis of coronaviruses in New York shows a majority of cases came from Europe. The singular focus on China as the source of the coronavirus masked the importance of European transmission and prevented national and international authorities from taking measures that may have reduced the spread of the disease.

Emphasizing wet markets depicts China as exotic, backwards, and uncivilized. It draws no distinction between wet markets as a broad category of venues that offer an important source of accessible, fresh food for many throughout Asia, and rare, specific wildlife markets, like Wuhan’s seafood market, where wild animals are sold and slaughtered. Such criticism objects to wildlife consumption in Asia while ignoring similar practices in the United States, such as eating wild alligator, duck, or venison. Vilifying wet markets simplifies the problem of the virus’s emergence to one for which Chinese people can be blamed and insists on a solution – banning wet markets – that fails to reckon with other possible causes or coexisting elements that made COVID-19 into a pandemic, particularly causes that indicate transnational and global culpability for the virus’s spread.

This stigma theory that is rooted in depicting the wet market as the source of the coronavirus and a supposedly “disgusting” place gives justification and legitimacy to racism and xenophobia. As we consider how to prevent future pandemics and how to counter the xenophobic and racist displays that have emerged in the wake of COVID-19, we should be mindful of the role that demonizing wet markets plays in encouraging discrimination and obscuring the complexity of COVID-19’s causes.


  1. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963). Return to text.
  2. Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Return to text.
  3. David Arnold, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (University of California Press, 1993); and Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Return to text.
  4. Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). Return to text.
  5. Richard A. McKay, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Return to text.
  6. Qun Li et al., “Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia,” New England Journal of Medicine 382, no. 13 (March 26, 2020): 1199–1207. Return to text.
  7. Yong-Zhen Zhang and Edward C. Holmes, “A Genomic Perspective on the Origin and Emergence of SARS-CoV-2,” Cell 181 (March 26, 2020): 223–227. Return to text.
  8. Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, and Jamie R. Oaks, “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover,” Trends in Parasitology 35, no. 6 (June 1, 2019): 399–408. Return to text.
  9. Sohel Ahmed et al., “Does Urbanization Make Emergence of Zoonosis More Likely? Evidence, Myths and Gaps,” Environment and Urbanization 31, no. 2 (October 1, 2019): 443–60. Return to text.

Emer Lucey is a PhD candidate in the history of science, medicine, and technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work examines the intersections of disability history and medical history, and her dissertation explores the history of autism and Down syndrome in mid-to-late twentieth-century America.

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