Sunday, June 7, 2009

Truth about Egypt’s pig massacre

An Egyptian worker moves a household pig into a truck to send it to the main slaughterhouse in the Manshiyat Nasser area in Cairo, May 4, 2009.PHOTO/ REUTERS

An Egyptian worker moves a household pig into a truck to send it to the main slaughterhouse in the Manshiyat Nasser area in Cairo, May 4, 2009.PHOTO/ REUTERS 

By CHEGE MBITIRU

With the massacre of pigs, Egyptian authorities are demonstrating how not to do the right thing the wrong way, at least in Cairo.

They’ve created a public relations and sectarian suspicions even US President Barack Obama’s visit couldn’t wash away.

Of course, Mr Obama didn’t go to the Arab world’s largest city to furbish Egypt’s image. He used the seat of Islamic scholarship and cradle of Arab nationalism to assure Muslims a Christian Crusade isn’t on the way.

In the wake of Mr Obama’s celebrated trip, the massacre’s sour taste remained. A British-based welfare charity, Compassion in World Farming, warned the massacre might turn tourists off Egypt’s lucrative circuit.

Animal lovers make a potent force, especially in developed nations. Media reports say a million Britons visited Egypt in 2007. British animal lovers can cause damage and influence their friends elsewhere to do likewise.

April’s outbreak of the so-called swine flu in Mexico provided Egyptian authorities a fake opportunity to solve a sanitary problem they should have done differently. What tourists don’t see in Cairo are slums. There people, birds and livestock enjoy an unsanitary co-existence.

Trash collectors

Among these people are zabaleen, adherents of the Coptic sect, older than Islam and other forms of Christianity. The zabaleen—it means trash collectors—haul garbage in Cairo and feed organic stuff to the pigs. In Islam, pigs are unclean. Tourists and expatriates eat the pork.

Mr James Hider of The Times recently wrote these people are proud of their way of life. Additionally, they know nothing else to do.

Worse, they now have to haul the refuse to a landfill 96km away, a non-profitable venture.

As soon as the flu outbreak was announced, Egyptian authorities ordered the slaughter of the country’s 300,000 pigs. Coptic Christians sensed discrimination. Avian flu outbreak didn’t result in a national poultry slaughter.

Officials used crudity to eliminate pigs from Islamic soil—clubbing them with iron bars or burying them alive in the desert. Compensation amounted to a mere $17.79. The tactics outraged even some Muslims.

A cleric cited the Koran’s call for compassion in animal slaughter. The UN called the slaughter unnecessary. Ironically, the flu reached Egypt via a visiting American 12-year-old girl.

The US Centre for Diseases Control says the ailment was first dubbed swine flu because tests indicated the culprit virus shared genes with another that infect North American pigs.

Additional tests showed the virus contains two genes from viruses that circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia, avian and human genes. It was a new strain of seasonal influenza H1N1 virus, spreads likewise, but a vaccine is non-existent.

On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal reported the virus had spread to 69 countries, infected about 22,000 people and killed 126. Puny! Seasonal influenza kills up to 300,000 worldwide annually.

Influenza season

Obviously, the new strain moved fast, afflicting people in far-flung countries, including some with no history of travel. Yet, influenza season in the southern hemisphere is just starting. WHO is one phase from declaring the new strain a pandemic. What have the Egyptian pigs to do with this?

Official panic and potential misguided state opportunism pop up. Memories of past flu outbreaks encourage the panic.

The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 40 million globally. Another in 1957 killed two million and a third in 1968 killed a million. More recent virus outbreaks include the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, and the avian flu. In all cases, economic loses soared.

WHO’s head Margaret Chan, has urged governments to resist temptations to take hasty measure, for example, restricting travel. She might have included any measure dubiously associated with the flu.

Egypt engaged in a behaviour states shouldn’t, covering up failures to deal with problems of sanitation and a marginalised minority. That’s creating problems without solving any.

Mr Mbitiru is a freelance journalist ([email protected])

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