Avian Flu Creates Major Asia Travel Disruptions

By SANDIP ROY Pacific News Service
Tuesday February 03, 2004

KOLKATA, India—Usually the dour official at the Kolkata airport barks, “Any gold? Electronics? Computer?” But this time, when I landed in India from America via Singapore, he was more interested in the food I was carrying. Cooked food from abroad, especially from Southeast Asia, is now suspect. In the age of the bird flu, I have been upgraded from potential electronics smuggler to a disease vector. 

In a world of collapsing boundaries, as flights from every corner of the globe disgorged passengers into the transit lounge of Singapore’s Changi International Airport, alarmed officials try desperately to guard their borders against diseases that spread at Boeing speed. The duty-free shop in San Francisco warned that beef jerky purchased there had to be consumed before landing in Seoul, since South Korea had just banned American beef products. At Hong Kong, large signs asked passengers if they had a persistent cough and flu-like symptoms. In Singapore, airport officials peered into a monitor as each deplaning passenger passed through what looked like an x-ray machine.  

But the flu rages through Southeast Asia, claiming another six-year-old in Bangkok and four million chickens in Karachi, Pakistan, making mincemeat of the governments’ efforts to corner it. For the anti-globalization activists, departing from the recently concluded World Social Forum in Mumbai, the bird flu is another potent reminder of how difficult it is to de-globalize the world once the genie has left the bottle. 

India, however, is trying to seal its boundaries against the flu, which is front page news, topping upcoming India-Pakistan peace talks in February. In fact, the bird flu has brought a bit of a chill in the recent thaw between the two prickly neighbors. Even as Indian and Pakistani bureaucrats plan talks on everything from Kashmir to drug trafficking and the countries resume air flights between each other, New Delhi is contemplating a ban on all poultry from Pakistan, where a strain of the flu killed the chickens. Indian newspapers are already dubbing it the Karachi flu.  

In an age where terrorism is conducted by stateless actors like Al Qaeda, the bird flu has proved just as elusive. Governments are trying to counter it on a war footing. The Animal Resources Development Minister in India has just announced a “massive hunt” for evidence of any suspected case. In Thailand, soldiers and prisoners have been pressed into service, culling chickens in the 13 provinces where the flu has been detected. But even as Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra claimed that almost all the chickens in the outbreak areas have been slaughtered, neighboring Laos confirmed that the flu had spread to that country. 

Globalization, which had greased the path for the free movement of goods across borders, whether pirated copies of The Lord of the Rings or Big Macs, now finds that diseases like SARS and the bird flu come in their wake. The World Health Organization is holding its breath, warning that if the Asian bird flu meets and mates with another human influenza virus moving toward the region, it could trigger a global pandemic that could kill millions of people. 

Faced with that possibility, governments are reduced to literally counting their chickens after they are hatched. In India, health officials are trying to force hatcheries to maintain a daily record of dying birds and clinically establish the cause of death of each one. It’s the poultry equivalent of cleaning the Augean stables in a country as vast as India. Meanwhile, the ritzy Taj Hotel in Kolkata is trying to reassure its foreign patrons by having a microbiologist examine each chicken. In Vietnam, Kentucky Fried Chicken, a popular hangout for foreigners, is offering fried fish instead of chicken. Singapore is banning the public from its seven poultry farms.  

As confidence-building measures, they seem puny and bureaucratic. India, which had been largely sanguine through the mad cow scare because its millions of Hindus don’t eat beef anyway, is not yet hysterical about the chicken flu. But Arambag Hatcheries, a popular purveyor of chicken parts, is reporting a dip in sales.  

Arambag had pioneered western-supermarket style sales of chicken parts—boneless thighs separate from chicken breasts. But customers are going back to more traditional sources for chicken, ones where they know for sure the bird didn’t die of some mysterious illness. At the market next to my family’s home in Kolkata, white chickens squished against each other in wire-mesh cages peck at their feed, while shoppers point out the one they want. The chicken seller hauls one squawking bird out and with one swift stroke chops off its head. “Look, it’s so fresh it’s still kicking. No flu here,” he says, as the headless bird jerks and twitches in a pool of blood and feathers. 

Sandip Roy is host of “Upfront,” the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco. He is currently traveling in India.