Governments Tested by Bird Flu Crisis

Avian flu has spread across at least 10 countries in Asia—from China and Pakistan to Indonesia. A meeting in Bangkok at the end of January highlighted the flu’s “regional dimension” as well as the need for a regional approach to eradicating it.  The flu has also driven home to the governments and people of Asia lessons that underscore political, economic, social, and cooperative change.

Politically, the avian flu is creating renewed awareness of good governance, especially transparency and accountability. In a replay of China’s political debacle during the SARS outbreak a year ago, Asians are once again demanding accountability in public health.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra faces a barrage of criticism for recent cover-ups about the flu to protect booming exports and tourism dollars.

China has reported on how rapidly the flu is spreading across half its territory since it revealed its first case. Political leaders, such as Premier Wen Jiabao, are now reaching out to destitute farmers from Hubei to Anhui.

In Indonesia, which had initially resisted the culling of affected chickens, President Megawati Sukarnoputri finally succumbed to pressure from the World Health Organization and international opinion to take drastic action, while incurring the wrath of poultry farmers ahead of crucial elections this year.

Some reports suggest that Indonesian authorities covered up the extent of the spread of H5N1 [a virus that causes a deadly form of avian flu] during much of last year, even as chickens reportedly died en masse in rural provinces. It was probably this political embarrassment that forced the Indonesian leaders to come clean.

Given the severity of the flu, Vietnamese leaders are critically aware of safeguarding their political legitimacy.

In all cases, Asian leaders acutely understand that public confidence is of the utmost importance, especially in the 2004-05 election year for Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and South Korea. Even in countries with no electoral challenges this year, such as China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, confidence in national leadership is at stake in the battle to halt the contagion.

Like the SARS epidemic, avian flu has highlighted the growing interdependence among Asian states, societies, and economies. With the liberalization of trade and travel across the continent, Asian regionalism has become a de facto reality, although Asian governments still harbor concerns about the effects of deepening regionalism.

In economic terms, avian flu again underscores the importance of domestic consumption, agricultural exports, and tourism in Asian economies. Domestic consumption has propped up Asian economies since the 1997-98 financial crisis. Any drastic drop in consumer confidence, as in Thailand, could lead to a full-blown economic crisis (through plunging poultry and related exports).

An economic slowdown is already perceptible in Thailand as the stock market and the currency slide. An added danger for economies in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia is the impact of the flu on the lucrative tourist and travel industry (already hit by recent terrorist threats). 

Perhaps one key lesson unfolding with avian flu is the importance of bridging the socioeconomic gap between richer urban communities and poorer rural areas. The extent of the flu epidemic has again revealed the extent of poverty in rural Asia and the socioeconomic cleavages in Asian societies.

For example, a controversy is now brewing in Thailand over the perceived “injustice” of culling chickens on poor rural farms (and providing modest compensation), while poultry bred by big agricultural conglomerates and around Bangkok need only be vaccinated. This problem could become a real thorn in the flesh of the Thaksin administration. In Indonesia, there were initial concerns (denied by authorities) that vested interests had unfairly prevented the culling of millions of birds.

In rural Asia, a crucial need exists for a coordinated socioeconomic uplift. Like SARS, which originated in poorer parts of the continent, avian flu underscores the importance of an aggressive policy to wipe out poverty and “balance” society. Beneath the vertiginous Asian boom still lie poor economies and marginalized societies that not only breed disease but also sow seeds of social unrest and political destabilization. This may be the true reality check that the avian flu epi-demic has brought to the region.