Australia's prime minister has berated the World Health Organization for supporting China's decision to reopen live animal markets amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Australian politicians have condemned Chinese wet markets as hotbeds of disease but one China expert said their disgust is based on deep misunderstandings.
The Australian government is at loggerheads with the World Health Organization as so-called wet markets start to reopen in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is believed to be the source of the coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt have condemned the markets, but the World Health Organization has called them a vital source of food.
University of Melbourne Chinese Studies lecturer Delia Lin said there is a “genuine linguistic misunderstanding” of what wet markets actually are.
“The term has been politically charged in the west and has been associated with coronavirus cover-ups and wildlife trading,” Dr Lin told SBS News.
“In China people would think that is absurd. Wet markets in China are more like a farmers' market in Australia.”
Prime Minister Morrison took aim at the World Health Organization for supporting the reopening of wet markets and said it was "unfathomable" to support live animal markets, where experts believe coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
"I'm totally puzzled by this decision," Mr Morrison told Nine on Tuesday.
Dr Lin, who lived in Wuhan until 1997, said there were a small number of Chinese markets dangerously trading in live animals.
“I grew up in Wuhan and people hate all those sorts of things.
“They are disgusted with wildlife trading. There’s only a tiny minority of people consuming that.”
Dr Lin agreed China had vast improvements to make in terms animal welfare.
“Wildlife trading markets have been banned but China does need to do a lot more to protect animals,” she said.
“For example, the annual dog meat festival still goes on and it should be banned.”
The World Health Organization said wet markets are crucial sources of food and should be allowed to continue trading.
“But it is necessary to regulate them and introduce measures to decrease the risk of transmission of diseases at them,” the WHO told SBS News in a statement.
“With adequate facilities, proper regulation and good hygiene practices it is possible to have safe food sold in wet markets.”
The WHO said markets selling live wild animals have been banned in China since February.
“It is WHO’s understanding that these laws continue to be enforced through provincial and municipal authorities under central government oversight,” the statement said.
Wet markets sell fresh food and produce - as opposed to 'dry' goods such as clothing - and some stock live animals such as chickens as well as seafood and livestock.
The 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, was thought to have emerged from wet markets in China's Guangdong province.
A wet market in Wuhan is believed to be the likely source of the COVID-19 outbreak.