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No time for bird flu or haze?

Updated On: Aug 29, 2006

Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari, Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono and Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie who went to the Kaban Jahe in Karo district of North Sumatra to examine a suspected case of bird flu were mobbed by enraged villagers who tried to rip their protective masks off.

Such scenes could only be imagined in Hollywood movies like Outbreak. They were angry with a state plan to cull their chickens without adequate compensation. Eventually, Jakarta had to mobilize the military to stop the violence.

In another example, Kubu Sembilang in the same North Sumatran province has chickens running around freely with local children playing with them despite the fact that seven members of a family here had died of bird flu in late May 2006. The faeces-laden sheds have not even been cleaned, much less disinfected while the village inhabitants take no precautions in handling sick and infected birds.

Indonesians continue to be ignorant of the dangers of a bird flu epidemic outbreak and some blame it on black magic. These individuals continue to eat sick chickens, use the faeces of infected chickens as fertilizer and withhold their illnesses from local hospitals even after they have infected their relatives and neighbours. Quite strangely, some farmers have even accused the government of spreading rumours about bird flu to obtain foreign aid and protested by eating raw chicken meat. The situation cannot be any grimmer.

All these behaviour and actions put the entire Southeast Asian region at risk of an epidemic and its economic fallout. Indonesia with its 1.3 billion chickens has the potential to become the region’s and indeed the world’s largest incubator of bird flu virus and its mutant variants. The H5N1 bird flu virus has already infected chickens in 29 of Indonesia's 33 provinces. The virus is now suspected to have mutated in Indonesia and become transmissible from human to human.

Politically, controlling the bird flu is a problem as Jakarta’s power has never been weaker and more decentralized. Many provincial and local authorities simply ignore edicts and laws emanating from the centre. Inter-ministry rivalry is another problem as the Agricultural Ministry shot down the Health Ministry’s plan to ban backyard farms and carry out culling, squabbling over jurisdictional authority.

What about the haze that is posing a nuisance for its neighbours? Malaysia's outspoken trade minister Rafidah Aziz hinted to the Indonesians: "We have to contend that this is something that will happen unless real serious efforts are being put by the governments where the haze originates." "When the haze comes from the neighbouring country, then the country must attempt to enforce to fight the forest fires," she said.

Indonesia is trying to spread the blame and turn the haze problem into a regional one. Coordinating Minister for People's Minister Aburizal Bakrie said Indonesiawanted more regional cooperation to tackle the haze because "we don't want to be continuously accused of being a haze exporter." This is true given that, in 1997-8, the haze enveloped SingaporeMalaysia and south Thailand and cost $9 billion in damage to tourism, transport and farming.

But even Indonesia’s Vice President has to admit that the haze is also a domestic problem and it is hurting the country’s future. "We are trying our best to put out the fires not because we are facing pressure from overseas but because we have our own interest at home. Our environment is damaged, our flight schedules are disturbed, people cannot go to work and students can not go to classes," the Vice President added.

In the final analysis, it all boils down to money and Indonesia is severely short of it. The Asian financial crisis in 1997, the tsunami of 2004, and the quakes and threat of volcanic eruptions of sacred Mount Merapi this past year have diverted precious little resources for coping with bird flu. Indonesia reduced its 2007 budget for bird flu defences to US$46.5 from US$54.4 million. Indonesia also has difficulties pulling out the budget for stopping the haze.

Perhaps, as some suggest, Indonesia should prioritize its budgetary items better and consider whether sending peacekeeping troops to Lebanon and Congo under the UN mandate or taking the initiative to be involved in the Iran and North Korean international diplomacy to obtain a higher profile in international affairs should all take a backseat to coping with the more urgent problems of bird flu, haze, tsunami, financial crisis, unemployment, volcanic eruptions happening back home.

Sources:

With quakes and tsunamis, no one's got time for bird flu (Straits Times, 27 August 2006)

RI to induce rain, drop water bombs on fires to stop haze (AP/Jakarta Post, 26 Aug 2006)

Haze thickens over SumatraKalimantan (Jakarta Post, 25 August 2006)

Indonesia cuts budget for bird flu fight amid rising cases (ANTARA, 25 August 2006)

Winds fan haze woes in west coast (AFP/Bernama/Reuters/Straits Times, 25 August 2006)

VP orders firm actions against culprits of forest fires (Antara, 25 August 2006)

Govt to conduct cloud seeding soon to fight forest fires (Antara, 25 August 2006)

Haze blankets Jambi, visibility down to 200 metres (Antara, 25 August 2006)

Indonesia says forest fires to disappear in two years (Antara, 25 August 2006)

Pontianak-bound planes cancel flight due to thick haze (Antara, 25 Aug 2006)

Ignorance hampers Indonesia's bird flu fight (Antara, 25 August 2006)

Indonesia cuts budget for bird flu fight amid rising cases (Antara, 25 August 2006)

Indonesia told to be more aggresive in handling bird flu (Antara, 24 August 2006)

Indonesia reports one more suspected human case of bird flu (People’s Daily, 24 August 2006)

ASEAN says Indonesia must act as haze hurts region (Channelnewsasia, 24 August 2006)