Fresh markets are not to blame for the new corona virus outbreak

The outbreak of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, has been in the headlines of media outlets across the world since it was first reported in Wuhan, China in late December 2019. Since then the virus has reportedly killed more over 2,000 people inside China and infected more than 75,000 people worldwide (as of February 19, 2020). On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared corona virus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Early reports indicated that an outdoor seafood market in the city, which also sells domesticated and wild animals, may have been where the outbreak began, since a number of the initial cases had recently visited it. Local authorities immediately closed the market down, and media outlets quickly started pointing fingers at “wet markets” and the culture of eating freshly slaughtered animals as being responsible for this and other global epidemics.

However, there is growing evidence that the Wuhan market may not have been the source of the initial outbreak in humans.  A paper published in The Lancet by a large group of Chinese researchers examined the first 41 hospitalised patients with confirmed infections from the coronavirus and found that the earliest case "became ill on 1 December 2019 and had no reported link to the seafood market," In total, 13 of the 41 initial cases they examined had no link to the marketplace. “That’s a big number, 13, with no link,” says Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University.1

"Judging from the whole situation, the seafood market may not be the only source or the origin of the novel coronavirus might be multi-source" according to Huang Chaolin, vice director of Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital. Huang said that there might be multiple places where the virus was first transmitted to humans.2        

Wet markets are very common and have a long history in many places in Asia, where fresh meat, fish, fresh vegetables and fruits, and other perishable goods are being sold. In these markets, hundreds and even thousands of traders mix with the farmers and fishers who bring their foods to be sold. Wet markets are an important source of fresh produce and meats at an affordable price for a majority of urban residents. Few vendors in these markets sell wild animals.

The vendors and small farmers who rely on wet markets to sell their products have to endure the consequences when authorities blame such markets for new disease outbreaks. This happened a decade ago with bird flu and swine flu when governments started shutting down wet markets. The fact however is that wet markets have existed in Asia for thousands of years without producing the kind of pandemics we see today.

What has changed is the way animals are now raised, in factory farms, and the way meat is processed and sold, in globalised chains of mass production. It is this industrial meat system that generated and propagated the unprecedented bird flu, swine flu and African swine fever pandemics of this century.3

And it's entirely possible that this system is connected to the current coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, in 2018, another novel coronavirus, known as SADS, originated in a factory pig farm in China where it wiped out the entire herd of 24,000 piglets.4 Laboratory tests showed that the disease had evolved from the Porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus, itself a product of factory farming, and was transmissible to humans. Luckily no transmission of SADS to humans has yet occurred but the case showed yet again how potentially pandemic viruses can evolve in the cramped conditions of factory farms.

The unfounded assertions that wet markets are responsible for the transmission of diseases from animals to humans have already caused immense economic damage to the people who work at and depend on such markets for their livelihoods and food security. This careless reporting is often intertwined with a biased view that western supermarkets – with their white lighting, sterile atmosphere are better and safer than wet markets. Such stereotypes can easily be used as a political weapon to consolidate the dominance of global supply chains and decimate small farmers and traders.
[1] Jon Cohen, “Wuhan seafood market may not be source of novel virus spreading globally”, ScienceMag, 26 January 2020
[2] Xinhua, “Wuhan seafood market may not be only source of novel coronavirus: expert “, 29 January 2020,  
[3] Viral times - The politics of emerging global animal diseases, 2008:; A food system that kills - Swine flu is meat industry's latest plague, 2009:; and forthcoming report from GRAIN on African Swine fever (March 2020).
[4] Melody Schreiber, "A Novel Virus Killed 24,000 Piglets In China. Where Did It Come From?" NPR, 4 April 2018:

Across the region

Half a century of India hawkers’ movement

In Indian cities, street hawkers represent the largest, more organized and politically vibrant sector in the informal economy. The year 2020 has a very special significance as we celebrate the golden jubilee of the Calcutta Hawker Men’s Union, the silver jubilee of the Calcutta Hawker Sangram Committee, the famous struggle against Operation Sunshine, and the completion of two eventful decades of the National Hawker Federation (NHF).

Today, the NHF exists in all the states and union territories of India with over 1200 membership of unions and associations of the street vendors and hawkers including eleven Central Trade Unions. The celebration will be an occasion for all these entities to come together and set a people’s vision for a collective, inclusive, equitable and a sustainable future. In addition, the celebration will offer a platform for interaction among city dwellers, hawkers, political and government functionaries, academics, journalists, city planners and policy-makers.

We believe, this is the time to write our own history, to learn from the past achievements and failures, to introspect with a critical mind, and to formulate new visions of people’s movement for the fast unfolding uncertain future. Our history is a history of trials and tribulations—a narrative that will tell you how the urban poor navigated a changing world, negotiated the market and governmental imperatives, served the humanity, enlivened the mass culture of democracy, and faced betrayals, violence, death and displacement. In this process, we changed the course of history and are transformed by the currents of time.

In 1952, left unions started unionizing hawkers and played a major role in 1950s and 1960s to rehabilitate refugee hawkers in authorized hawkers’ corners in different pockets of Kolkata. The real boost in unionization however came after the formation of the Calcutta Hawker Men’s Union (CHMU) in June, 1970. The Union was initiated by Saktiman Ghosh to resist an on-going eviction in an intersection in central Calcutta. The Union grew since then into a large body taking care of majority of food vendors in the central city. It came into prominence during a major conflict in 1979-80 when the newly formed Left Front Government undertook a massive eviction drive in Sealdah while constructing a flyover. The CHMU was able to build up the first ever federation of unions under the banner of ‘Madhya Kolkata Hawker Sangram Committee’. Ultimately, the federation was able to negotiate the resettlement of hawkers under the flyover. This experience proved to be a landmark in the histories of the people’s movement in India. The successful negotiation enabled the hawkers to understand the power of a coordinated movement under a democratic and federal organizational structure.

Another major turning point was ‘Operation Sunshine’, which was carried out between the winters of 1996 and 1997 to make Kolkata investment friendly by evicting hawkers. Around 21 major streets of Kolkata were chosen for the operation. It was in this context that on 9 August, 1996 more than 36 unions of hawkers came together within a unique federal structure of the Hawker Sangram Committee (HSC). The HSC led an epic struggle against Operation Sunshine with the support of the larger public. Along with sensational protest rallies—using innovative means, such as carrying 18 coffins, to remember the mass suicide of hawkers that followed Operation Sunshine. By June 1997, the hawkers started returning to their locations, and the Hawker Sangram Committee played a major role in redistributing footpath space among hawkers after Operation Sunshine ended. It renamed Operation Sunshine as ‘Operation Sunset’.

The Hawker Sangram Committee maintains links with many contemporary movements in India, like the National Alliance of People’s Movements. It was the key organization of the National Movement for Retail Democracy, which spearheaded massive protests against corporate retailing in Indian cities. It soon became pivotal organization of the National Hawker Federation.

Ever since its formation in 2000, the NHF played a key role in scaling up the hawkers’ cause to national level and mobilized public opinion in favour of a national policy on street vendors, which, after much street level struggles, negotiations and legal activism by the NHF, transformed into the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014.  The emergence of the NHF in the late 1990s and the early 2000s also signaled an aggregation of anti-eviction movements in different cities within a frame of comparative interrogation of diverse local laws, movements, and the condition of the street vendors in different Indian cities. The NHF was quick to devise a technique of policy interrogation by using one city context to ask questions of another, with occasional reference to the condition of street vendors in other places around the world from New York to Bangkok, from Mexico City to Durban.

The hawkers are organizing a five-day programme to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the movement in Indian from 26 February to 1 March, 2020 at the historic Subodh Mullick Square in Kolkata. The programme will start with a rally of women street hawkers followed by seminars, planning meetings, a central rally, and a set of cultural programmes  of the historical moments on the hawkers’ movement in India.

Behind this event lays a twofold aspiration to create a platform where different geographies of knowledge on urban informality can interact horizontally, and, on the other hand, to develop a toolkit for understanding urban policy and planning through the parameters of what we call a ‘trans-city interrogation’. In other words, to use one city's context to ask questions of another, given the great diversity of urban economies, governance structures, and histories of street hawking across different Indian cities. Thus, pushing the National Hawker Federation forward on new and up to date configurations of urban and regional knowledge.

Article by
National Hawkers Federation

Further information on India’s National Hawkers Federation

Tesco sells out its Southeast Asia operation


UK-owned multinational groceries and retailer company, Tesco announced the plan to sell out their Southeast Asia operation and Thai retail conglomerates are eyeing to buy Tesco assets. Tesco ranks  in the top ten of global retail companies. In Southeast Asia a majority of their stores are located in Malaysia and Thailand. Kingkorn Narintarakul from Thai-based NGO Biothai throws some light  on what this sell out would mean for the already very concentrated retail industry of Thailand.

1. How significant is Tesco's presence in Thai retail industry?

Tesco is classified as a hypermarket.  Tesco holds a 70% share of the hypermarket sector.  There are only two other main players in this sector, they are Big C and Tops Superstore.  When looking at the total modern grocery market in Thailand’s retail sector, Tesco comes  second with a 17% share.  Whichever group purchases Tesco, it will instantly become a major market player. 

  Total Modern Grocery Market share
  Million baht % Market share
Total Value 994,000 100%
CP Group 521,000 53.0%
Tesco Lotus 171,000 17.0%
BJC 101,000 10.0%
Central Food Retail 55,000 5.5%
Others 146,000 14.5%

Source: Euro Monitor 2018

2. It's been reported that the CP Group is among the strongest contenders weighing bids for Tesco's Southeast Asian business, what would that mean for the CP retail industry? Some sources also say that Tesco's successful bidder could face regulatory problems from Thailand's anti-competition body, why so? Would CP go ahead with its plan if it faced such a regulatory issue? 
Thailand’s Office of Trade Competition Commission has said that before any  serious bid to purchase Tesco Lotus is put on the table, permission must first be sought from the Commission guaranteeing  that the merger doesn't bring about a monopoly or market dominance, based on the following three criteria:

  1. Market dominance is having a market share that exceeds 50%, with sales from 1,000 million baht or over, or is one of the top three players in the marketplace, with a share of over 75 %;  
  2. An analysis of impacts from such a merging of businesses, must include an assessment of the impacts on commercial competition, both on suppliers and consumers;
  3. Consideration would be given to whether and how the merger would affect the overall structure of the market.

We did not see these rules to protect commercial competition put into force when CP All bought Makro which led CP to obtain over 50% of the total modern grocery sector, with a market value of over 500,000 million baht.

But CP already holds a very high market share. With its leading convenience stores, 7 -11 shops, and its cash and carry operation (Makro), various analysts report that CP sees this acquisition as too expensive. Apart from the fact that not much growth is expected in the hypermarket sector - the major battlefield for competition is in the convenience store sector -  there is also the problem of the trade competition law.  So I don’t think that CP will get seriously involved.  
3. In your opinion how will this acquisition affect fresh markets in Thailand?
If CP is a successful bidder, then CP will increase its share of the overall Modern Grocery Market from 53% to 70%.  Just in the Convenience Stores market alone, CP’s share will increase from 76% to 86%.  Alternatively, if BJC were to merge its Big C stores with Tesco Lotus, then its share of the modern grocery market would increase to 27%, while its share of the Hypermarket sector would increase to 99%, or near total market dominance.   Were the Central retail group to acquire Tesco Lotus stores, this would have the effect of increasing its share of the Supermarket sector from 20% to 32%, and its share of the overall modern grocery market would increase from 5.5% to 23%.

Various scenarios of Tesco acquisition Impacts on the structure of the modern grocery market
If CP were the successful bidder CP’s modern grocery market share would increase from 53% to 70%
If BJC, or Big C, were the successful bidder Big C’s modern grocery market share would increase from 10% to 27%
If Central were the successful bidder Central’s modern grocery market share would increase from 5.5% to 23%

If the two main players in the overall modern grocery market, CP or Big C, acquired Tesco, it would have a greater impact on the structure of the market than if Tesco was acquired by the Central group.  CP would have almost total market dominance with a prospective total market share of 70%, and from having a great deal of power already would become a giant buyer with power over suppliers. 

In the convenience store sector for the scenario mentioned above, 7-11 and Tesco Lotus Express would finally end their fierce competition. Analysts point out that this would have an impact on consumers where business owners can influence prices of  products currently sold at Tesco stores to the same level as in the 7-11 stores.  And, it's not hard to imagine that consumers, who increasingly cannot avoid bumping into 7-11 stores, will end up surrounded by even less choice of convenience stores.   Big C, which is the second top player in the Hypermarket sector, will hold a 99% share of hypermarket shares.  These hypermarket brands, Big C and Tesco Lotus, have been replacing fresh markets for low to middle income groups. If such business merger happens where only one company is left operating in this sector, it will gain greater control over the economic life of these income groups.


News brief

Is it fair to blame unsanitary wet market conditions in China for the coronavirus outbreak?

Dr. Zhenzhong Si, Linkedin

Scientists believe that the coronavirus outbreak in China was originated from the Wuhan Seafood Market, a popular wholesale market that sells live animals from both animal farms and poaching. Suddenly, Chinese wet markets appeared in international news headlines. But a question that emerges from the turmoil is, is it fair for us to blame wet markets for the coronavirus outbreak? Or, to what extent should wet markets be responsible for this and other outbreaks of infectious diseases?
Tesco faces Thai regulatory threat to $10bn deal

Karishma Vaswani, BBC

The sale of Tesco's prized Asian assets - which are potentially valued at up to $10bn (£7.7bn) - may be at risk because of Thailand's competition regulations. The supermarket chain has nearly 2,000 outlets in Thailand and Malaysia that three Thai groups are hoping to buy. However, the successful bidder could face regulatory hurdles from Thailand's new anti-competition body.

Vingroup, Masan to merge units to create Vietnam’s biggest consumer platform
Nguyen Kieu Giang and Mai Ngoc Chau, Bloomberg

Two of Vietnam’s most important companies plan to merge some of their units to create a retail giant in the country. Vingroup JSC’s retail and agriculture units will merge with Masan Consumer Holdings -- a subsidiary of Masan Group Corp. -- to create the new corporation, according to a Vingroup statement. Vingroup’s shares in VinCommerce and VinEco will be converted into shares of the new company, in which Vingroup will be a shareholder and Masan Group will take control.

Coke, crisps, convenience: how ads created a global junk food generation
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, The Guardian
From Bangladesh to Britain, blanket exposure to promotional material for unhealthy foods is encouraging children to eat badly, new research claims.
“It is far too easy to eat badly, and far too difficult to eat well. Responsibility for this does not just lie with individuals. Rigorous policy changes will be required … but this means going up against powerful and wealthy corporations and often governments who are not interested in seeing this change.”

Coles underpaid workers by $20m over six years
Australian Associated Press, The Guardian
Supermarket giant Coles is the latest major retailer to be caught up in an underpayment scandal in Australia, with the company expecting a $20m hit after underpaying managers at its supermarkets and liquor division over the past six years.

The reveal comes after Australia attorney general Christian Porter, who is also industrial relations minister, released a discussion paper looking at options to tackle worker underpayments. He said the issue was incredibly serious and bordered on negligence in the case of big companies that should be capable of following workplace law.

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