‘The Bazaar at Constantinople’, watercolour by J.F. Lewis
Wellcome Collection

One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws.

As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying. That something as mundane as buying food could be so quirky, disgusting or cruel seems to epitomise and justify the gulf between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but it also feeds an appetite for the exhilaration and romance of difference. Chinese food is the third most popular choice for Britons eating out, but one of the most tired racist stereotypes about Chinese people accuses them of unsavoury culinary practices, such as eating the ‘wrong’ animals, bought at wet markets.

‘Wet’ snags in the Western mind as a peculiar modifier. Damp, sodden, dripping. Wet with blood? Moist with viral vapours? Wet as in ‘wetwork’? But wet markets are just food markets, farmers’ markets, Sunday markets. They’re cheaper than supermarkets, with fresher produce, less packaging, and vendors who know more about the food they sell and are more likely to make friends with their regular customers. Wet markets are so called because their floors are regularly hosed down after meat and vegetables have been washed or prepared, and water and ice are used to keep perishable produce cool and fresh. In other words, the name reflects the measures taken by stallholders to keep their products and the environment clean and safe.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which has been linked to some of the earliest reported cases of Covid-19, is not a conventional wet market. It has a section dedicated to the sale of wild animals, which makes that part a wildlife market. When distressed animals are penned into a place of high human density, there is a small chance that a novel zoonotic disease may cross from one species to another.

Several of the early cases were connected to the market, but not all, and not the earliest. If Covid-19 did make the jump from animals to humans at the wildlife market, it would not be the first time that a severe health threat has arisen through unwise practices in the meat industry. Sars and avian flu are two recent examples. And Britons would do well to remember the BSE anxiety of the mid-1990s. If cultural practices around food production and consumption can be judged objectively, the idea of feeding cows the ground meat and bones of their butchered peers may deserve particular disgust. In that case, too, the government was criticised for a slow, opaque, inadequate response. And it is not over yet: we may be due a second wave of deaths from vCJD.

When you orientalise a group, you stop seeing the obvious ways they’re similar to you, and risk missing your common frailties. The initial lockdown in China was interpreted elsewhere as a quirk of foreign authoritarianism, rather than a necessary public health measure. An Italian health minister admitted to the New York Times in March that the unfolding crisis in China had looked like something from a ‘science fiction movie that had nothing to do with us’. The UK government imagined it could put our ‘freedom-loving instincts’ ahead of any other consideration. Admitting to and understanding the role that race and culture played in our failure to see China’s crisis as relevant to us will be a vital part of bringing us to a place of greater safety in the uncertain years ahead.

Returning to that scene in Jaws: the mayor, keen to get back to business as usual, hangs up a shark caught by local fisherman to satisfy the islanders that the culprit of the terror has been found and slain. But later, in private, the sheriff and oceanographer cut open the shark’s digestive tract and find no human remains. It’s the wrong shark. The real thing is still out there, still a threat.

The wrong shark