Sunday, May 01, 2005

Asia's Failure Over Bird Flu


The Asian Wall Street Journal
Monday, February 2, 2004

By Thang D. Nguyen

Asia is in another crisis, and Asian leaders have once again failed to rise to the challenge. This most recent crisis is bird flu, which has been spreading throughout the region in a manner reminiscent of last year’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, that inflicted such severe damage on Asian economies.

Already the bird flu outbreak has claimed lives in Thailand and Vietnam and led to the slaughter of millions of chickens throughout Asia—from Cambodia to China, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan.

It’s clear the outbreak erupted long before authorities in many Asian countries were prepared to acknowledge it. But even when herds of chickens started dying, the public was not informed. It was only when the problem got serious that health and agricultural authorities finally decided to go public.

Thailand ordered a mass cull of chickens roughly two months after the first case was identified. Even though millions of chicken started to die last year, it wasn’t until late January that Indonesia acknowledged the problem. Earlier in the month, Jakarta was still claiming the country was free of bird flu and that it had no plans for a mass cull of poultry.

“We will not imitate neighboring countries. Culling would certainly reduce poultry population drastically,” Agriculture Minister Bungaran Saragih was recently quoted by Antara, Indonesia’s state news agency. It wasn’t until Thursday, after an urgent meeting of Asian health and agriculture ministers in Bangkok, and under criticism from the World Health Organization and pressure from other infected countries, that Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri ordered a cull.

Inevitably there are accusations that business leaders in the Asian poultry industry persuaded governments to keep the outbreak quiet, for fear of the effect on their livelihood. But whatever the reasons, it is the governments who must take the blame for the deadly and costly consequences of hiding the truth from the public.

After last year’s experience of dealing with SARS, Asian governments should be well aware that the best way of dealing with an epidemic is through prompt and effective action, as soon as the first signs emerge. And as Singapore showed during that crisis, it is possible to stop an outbreak by publicizing it and encouraging discipline among the citizens.

The short-sighted--and illogical--rationale of the Indonesian government was that publicizing the outbreak would hurt poultry exports, cause public panic, and cost a lot of money. What they failed to realize is that the costs of deception are far higher.

Poultry exports from countries like Thailand will suffer as places like Japan and the European Union ban imports until their citizens feel safe eating chicken again. There are also psychological costs. Many are now afraid to consume poultry products, even after assurances from the World Health Organization that cooked chickens are safe to eat. Asian leaders may also pay a political price.

The lesson for Asia from this latest outbreak is that many in the region have failed to learn a lesson from early crises. Sadly that will make it more difficult to prevent future ones from erupting.

Mr. Nguyen is program coordinator at the Jakarta-based United in Diversity Forum. These are his personal views.

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7:31 PM  

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