Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 May 2009
Issue No. 948
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Pig stuff

By Salama A Salama

Bird flu hit us a few years ago and to this day the government doesn't know what to do with it. Bird flu has already spread in our villages, farms and cities and many have contracted it. Yet, we're still at a loss about it. We're still wondering what vaccine to use, and whether people and birds can co-exist. To this day, we don't know the extent of the threat bird flu poses to the country. One day the prime minister or the agriculture minister says that bird flu is over. Another day, experts tell us that they just found a vaccine that would rid the country from it. So roughly speaking, we're still at risk, but shouldn't worry too much. This alone makes me worry.

Recently another strain of flu, just as potentially deadly, hit the country. Swine flu, which appeared in Mexico and spread fast across the globe, was billed by the World Health Organisation as a major international health peril. Initially, our government went into denial, telling us it has everything under control. A few days later, it reversed its position, telling us that the country has a swine population of 350,000 that is a menace to all humans in this country.

Then the swine hunt began. Death squads, with and without masks, were detailed to annihilate the swine population in a hurry. Small details, as the proper disposal of animal carcasses, were left for later. Tens of thousands of pigs were rounded up and executed. Only a few were properly slaughtered for storage and later sale. No differentiation was made between healthy and infected animals -- as far as we know none of the swine population was found infected with that particular virus.

Now pigs, not unlike chicken and sheep, are part of the domesticated animal scene in Egypt. As such, they are part of the national wealth, a source of income for our farmers. But for some reason we decided to kill our entire swine stock without rhyme or reason. In more advanced countries, governments do all they can to supervise livestock and make sure it remains disease-free. When foot-and- mouth disease appeared in Europe, selective culling, not whole-scale mayhem, was advised.

In this country, we lack accurate figures about swine farms. We don't know how many people depend for their livelihood on swine breeding. We don't know the size of the annual consumption of pig meat. And we don't know what our potential for export is.

When we took the decision to kill the country's swine stock, our motivation was unclear. Due to the Muslim ban on pig meat, a useless debate developed over whether pigs can be allowed to exist at all. And yet we must all know that Christianity has no problem with pig products and that the consumption of pig meat is substantial in this country, both by Christian locals and foreign visitors.

Only in a society that has no resort to scientific methods whatsoever was such a conundrum possible. Only when people address issues with petulant emotion rather than a clear mind could we take such a hasty decision. Of course, we can have swine farms and survive. We always did. Of course, we can monitor our livestock and keep it healthy. All other countries in the world do. But first we have to cool off and think clearly.

The way I see it, we don't have a problem with pigs, we have a problem with humans who think they are smarter than pigs, but aren't.

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