Bird flu has again torn across China, people are dying, and new cases are being confirmed almost daily. So why does everything seem so normal?
“Are you worried about getting bird flu?” I asked a woman who runs a cafe in Taizhou (泰州).
“No,” she replied without hesitation, “I stay away from public places and don’t eat chicken.” After a brief pause, she added, “That’s how you get it, from chicken.”
Apparently, it’s as simple as that.
I was interested in how the Chinese public is reacting to the recent outbreak of a new strain of avian flu, which has so far infected at least 21 people and killed six across three provinces in eastern China this past week.
“I heard that there was a case of bird flu in Taizhou. Is this true?” I asked. I was looking for information on a rumor that has spread through the city that has not been officially confirmed. In situations like this, hearsay is often misinterpreted as fact, and, as I was gauging the public reaction to this crisis, I wanted to hear both.
A young guy in the cafe overheard our conversation and stepped in to set the record straight. “No,” he corrected me, “there is no bird flu in Taizhou.”
This guy’s sense of civil pride seemed to have been tweaked by a foreigner discussing the presence of a potentially deadly disease in his city, but when I mentioned to him how I heard the rumor he backed down.
“Yes,” he spoke, “a boy to the south of the city got it.”
“He ate the soup,” the cafe lady piped up.
That’s the story anyway, but as it has still not been confirmed by any official source there is now a second rumor that the first rumor may have been, yes, just a rumor. Though, nobody seems to know for sure. I asked around about whether this information was shared on the news, and I received a hallmark response:
“No, it wasn’t on the news. The news doesn’t tell us anything. We don’t know what to believe.”
What the government here does not reveal, the people make up for themselves. But the Chinese government is very diligent about dispelling such rumors during times of crisis, when hysteria could teeter the balance of social control. To exemplify this, security officials have arrested a man who spread a rumor that two people had contracted bird flu in Fujian province.
Though one rumor that has spread unchecked is that you get bird flu from eating poultry. The Chinese government has tried to ease the public’s fears about eating chicken, but it has been to no avail. When images of hazmat troops marching through poultry markets slaughtering thousands of birds are broadcast across the Chinese media the people know that something is awry, and the causal relationship between consuming poultry and getting bird flu is easy to make. It is a connection that has become hard coded here at this stage of the game — whether this is how this new strain is actually spread or not. Officially speaking, avian flu is not contracted through eating cooked poultry.
Nancy Cox, flu virologist with the CDC, told NPR that, “there are some molecular markers or genetic sequence changes — allowing the virus to bind to molecules on the surface of human respiratory cells — that would indicate these viruses might be able to infect humans more easily than, for example, the H5N1 bird flu viruses.”
For the most part, the avian flu virus infects people by attaching to cells in the respiratory tract.
The new strain of bird flu that is sweeping eastern China is called H7N9, and up to a week ago it was not thought to be able to infect humans. The virus is readily transmittable between birds, but, unlike other strains of avian flu, it doesn’t make them ill and is completely asymptomatic. This means that it can easily be passed through entire flocks without any indication, which creates a far more precarious situation for humans now that it has mutated into something we can catch.
As of now, H7N9 is not communicable between humans, and its distribution across a vast area of the China with relatively few infections attests to this. Though people have so far gotten this disease in three provinces, the infection rate is incredibly low. In fact, in all confirmed cases the infected person’s family members and close associates were not afflicted (though there is one case where this may have been possible). Though this virus is said to be mutating fast, as of this writing we’re looking at a disease that is currently only being spread to humans from birds. In fact, three of the people who have come down with confirmed cases of the infection had close contact with poultry. One was a poultry transporter, another a poultry butcher, and the third was a chef.
This fact has created a mass exodus of consumers away from all forms of poultry, and sales on chicken have plummeted. “Cook your chicken well and it is safe” is the official position of just about every health organization that has briefed their citizens on bird flu, but the general public in China seems more willing to just not eat poultry at all than take any chances.
“The chicken place next door isn’t doing very well,” the lady running the cafe said with an exasperated laugh after explaining how many people are now avoiding poultry.
It was true. When I left the cafe I checked out the fried chicken joint that’s next to it. It was lunch time, and this place is usually so packed full of customers that there is a line leading out the door. Today it was virtually barren. The word got out — chicken gives you bird flu! — and consumers responded.
Needless to say, anybody in the poultry business in China is in for hard times. I checked out a couple of KFCs around Taizhou, and found them to also be lacking their usual surge of customers. McDonalds branches in Shanghai have reputedly offered a discount on chicken mcnuggets, and many restaurants around the city have publicly stated that they will not be offering chicken until this wave of bird flu passes.
This fear is perhaps not without due cause. 10 chicken, two pigeon, and seven environmental samples across three markets in Shanghai tested positive for H7N9, which prompted the government to go on a massive bird culling rampage. Over 20,000 birds were slaughtered by squads in hazmat suits and two poultry markets were closed. Similar action has also been taken in Hangzhou and Nanjing.
I went over to the local live poultry market in Taizhou, and found that the rows and stacks of cages were still full of their inhabitants. This market was not shut down, it was not cleared out, and it pretty much functioned as it does everyday. Chickens, pigeons, and geese were still being sold, there were cages and crates full of them all the way down the street. Though I cannot say that there were any other customers there besides myself.
I found a vendor stooped over a stack of cages that contained dozens of pigeons and chickens — the birds of ill omen. He had his head down over his crossed arms like a school child lays his head down upon a desk. This guy was obviously confident that his birds did not carry any sort of malignant virus, as his face was mere inches from those of his pigeons.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting bird flu?” I asked, figuring I’d get right to the point. There’s no hiding the fact that bird flu is an issue in this part of China, and poultry dealers unwittingly became the target of an economic backlash as their products became taboo over night.
“No, I’m not afraid of bird flu,” he responded without taking offense. “There is no bird flu.”
I stared at him inquisitively. I wanted to see if he was really saying that he believed that bird flu did not exist or that just his birds were not infected.
“What do you think of bird flu?” I questioned.
“There is no bird flu here. There is no bird flu in Taizhou,” he reaffirmed. He looked worn out, he sounded exasperated, he seemed defeated — like a stock broker who wakes up one morning to find his fortune stripped from him on some obscure technicality.
Upon overhearing our conversation most of the poultry dealers on the street surrounded me. They wanted to set the record straight too, and echoed the same sentiment: “There is no bird flu here. There is no bird flu in Taizhou. Our birds are good.”
I did not mention the rumor of the boy who reputedly came down with the condition after consuming pigeon soup near here — these dealers have been financially stabbed in the gut as it was, and there was no reason for me to twist the knife.
But misfortune for poultry dealers spells pay dirt for vendors of other types of food. Removing poultry from the shopping lists of millions of people throughout China means that there is a big gap that other foods are filling. A CCTV report just aired that showed how the retail prices of vegetables have skyrocketed over the past couple of days, as so many people have been scared off from purchasing meat. Poultry was a major alternative to pork, the Chinese staple meat whose reputation was damaged after the hogwash and other recent scandals, but now that it’s off the list too many people have temporarily gone vegetarian.
This was the advice that I received:
“Don’t eat poultry. But don’t eat pork either. Beef is bad too. Come to think of it, you should probably just be like a monk and eat vegetables and go to temple.”
This is not hysteria. Food safety scares are normal in China, and the public has gotten pretty used to changing their food consumption habits based around whatever the recent food contamination scandal is.
Though people around Taizhou are legitimately concerned about bird flu, few seem to be overtly worried. Life goes on as it did before, no more people are wearing masks in the street than usual, and there is very little signs of hysteria. In fact, nobody seems to really even be talking about the bird flu. In fact, they seem surprised that I bring it up at all. They take a few simple precautions that have been disseminated to them via hearsay and the government, and then go about their day with hardly a thought paid to H7N9.
This seems to be the same attitude that is reflected all around China.
“Yes, I am afraid of the bird flu,” a friend in Inner Mongolia told me via email, “but just a little bit. Because I think the areas of infection source are far away from where I live, and before bird flu spreads, it could be stopped.”
In Yunnan province, our western China correspondent, Mitch Blatt, reported that the sentiment was similar.
“I’m not worried,” a man with the surname Ye told Mitch, “because it would be hard to spread seriously to Yunnan. The population here isn’t very dense.”
While a woman named Mei Mei explained to him that the last time there was bird flu in China, “it wasn’t very serious here. It’s just a problem in big cities.”
Although one person who works at a bar seemed a little more concerned: “I’m very worried. This could spread easily. If it gets to Yunnan then no one will come here to drink.”
I also asked around in an attempt to discover what the general take was on the Chinese government’s actions as they attempt to quell this outbreak of bird flu. “The government just gives advice,” a 30-something woman surnamed Liu told me, “they cannot stop bird flu. Bird flu is out of control.” While another woman who is in her early twenties answered, “Yes, I trust that the authorities can keep me safe. In the meantime, I think that the safest way is we should protect ourselves.”
As far as netizen opinion is concerned, there is the usual mob of critics, but even they seem to be less biting than usual. In fact, many seem to be merely cynical rather than outright critical:
However, some official reactions have drawn scorn from netizens. Many mocked Jiangsu’s Department of Health for issuing a statement claiming that Chinese herbal medicine banlangen could prevent H7N9. The medicine was formerly touted as a preventative measure for SARS and swine flu, despite a lack of scientific evidence to that effect. Commented one Weibo user, “Maybe their relatives sell banlangen.” Another wrote, “We haven’t even figured out how the virus mutated, or how it is transmitted, but you’re selling a preventative medicine?”
As for the job the Chinese government/ media has done in portraying this outbreak, their grade seems to be somewhere between C+ and B-, which means: better, more transparent, and informative than usual but still not excellent. A major part of the criticism towards the government’s outreach has not been that they are covering up the facts and keeping the public in the dark — which is always a consideration — but that they are recommending inadequate and sometimes ridiculous prevention methods — such as keeping windows open to allow air flow and to consume the herb banlangen.
The Chinese are concerned about bird flu, but few seem overtly worried, and even less appear to be inconvenienced by it. In a country where hysteria can spread like cooties, the public has taken this epidemic with level-headed grace. A cookie-cutter set of precautions are being taken, and life goes on as usual. When it comes down to it, when a mere 21 out of 1.3 billion Chinese people are infected with a disease this country doesn’t descend into hysterics.
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