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China and the Swine Flu Outbreak

Beijing.

This is anniversary year in China. Thirty years have passed since Tiananmen Square and 70 have gone since the People’s Republic was founded. A century has elapsed since the Treaty of Versailles and the anger that it sparked resulting in the May Fourth protest movement for cleaner government and 125 since the outbreak of a calamitous war with Japan. A sensitive time. But one anniversary looms that will be barely commented on even as its ramifications impact every household. August will mark one year since the outbreak of African swine fever, or swine flu, that has decimated the country’s pig herd.

The pork industry is worth about $128 billion in China and the country’s 375 million pigs make up just under half the planet’s total.

The number of pigs China will fatten to prepare for slaughter and sale this year is predicted to fall by 20 percent, from 2018. This is the worst annual slump since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began counting China’s pigs in the mid-1970s.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs disclosed in a report that China had 375 million sows and piglets at the end of March, down from 428 million in December.

The pig virus has not skipped species and doesn’t harm humans, at least not yet, even if they eat tainted pork. The virus for pigs, though  is fatal and spreads easily. No vaccine can prevent infection, or treat it. If a single pig is found to test positive for the virus, the entire herd has to be slaughtered. Farmers usually suffer substantial financial losses in the process.

It can be carried in clothing, infected blood, or fluids from urine, saliva or faeces, and on tires and shoes. There are concerns that Chinese provincial governments are suppressing data and asking pork companies not to report new outbreaks.

It was first detected outside Africa in 1957, in Portugal but never before has it spread so rapidly and damagingly. All of the 33 provinces and regions in China have been affected. Other countries are battling the outbreak. The disease has been found in Mongolia, Cambodia and North Korea.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization believes cases reported by local governments are underestimates. Farmers in China are suspected of selling infected meat rather than report outbreaks due to a lag in often inadequate compensation and being burdened by inspections. Local government officials may also be reluctant to report outbreaks fearing it would reflect badly on them.

This outbreak was first detected in China in August in Liaoning province in the northeast. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs immediately responded with emergency measures.All pigs in a three-kilometer zone around an infected herd had to be killed, according to guidelines more observed in the breach. Roadblocks were meant to be set up and inspection and disinfection stations established within a 10-kilometer buffer zone. Again, not strictly implemented.

Pork is the meat of choice in China and no meal is complete without it. Braised in sauce as Mao Zedong demanded, in dumplings or just planly fried or boiled, pork accounts for nearly three-quarters of Chinese meat consumption.

Pig rearing in China, despite large industrialized farms, remains a predominately a small-scale affair. Pigs also provide cheap garbage disposal services. They are fed left over scraps and provide manure and meat for the farm. Their centrality to life is reflected in the Mandarin character for home which depicts a pig under a roof.The economic impact is being felt. China’s National Bureau of Statistics last week said that  that the Consumer Price Index hit 2.7 percent in May, the highest level in more than a year.

Overall food prices jumped by 7.7 percent last month compared to the same period in 2018.As the party celebrates seven decades in power in October, in banquet halls where pork will be served on tables illuminated by cut-glass chandeliers, their appetite may be diminished by the realization that surging food prices carry the risk of instability.

Tom Clifford, now in China, worked in Qatar with Gulf Times from 1989-1992 and covered the Gulf War for Irish and Canadian newspapers as well as for other media organizations.

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