In every crisis…

CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2019 - 12:00am

“In every crisis there is opportunity” – Chinese proverb.

In the Philippines, every crisis brings out politicians and opportunists and nothing makes this more apparent than the occurrence of ASF or African Swine Fever. When ASF hit other countries such as South Korea the problem was dealt with by the country’s President and high level officials and is currently being treated as a national security concern because it is a threat to food security and agriculture. It is the national government that takes the lead, gives the directives and does all the talking. 

But in the Philippines, we now have people doing so much talking about a subject matter they only hear from their assistants, a son or daughter who Google searches stuff for them, or vested interest groups with nothing but profit or malice on their minds. Sadly even the well-meaning local officials have jumped into panic mode in spite of all the science and national government directives given or made available to them. The worst thing I have observed as an advocate of backyard hog raising is how certain groups of traders and buyers are now using ASF as an instrument to sow fear and disinformation in order to drive farm gate or farm prices down. Other traders are using ASF to justify the unrestricted importation of pork products from abroad, and recently to effectively blockade or drive out competitors from entering their markets or regions.

All this talk about ASF would be good IF and ONLY IF the people doing the talking are veterinarians who specialize with hogs and related diseases. Not all vets specialize on pigs and even the hog specialists are not necessarily schooled or well trained on ASF. It is no different with human diseases and doctors. There are GPs or general practitioners, there are specialists who devote themselves to a particular field of practice and there are those few but highly trained experts on contagion, outbreaks etc. There is an existing crisis management group under the Department of Agriculture that talks almost daily or meets weekly to do assessment and evaluation on ASF in the Philippines, some of them are internationally trained scientists or come from the private sector doing nothing but deal with pigs, hogs and piggeries. They only have one designated spokesperson and that Undersecretary cannot and does not digress from what the crisis management group agrees upon as science and facts.

Everything that the DA has done so far is in line with international protocols and are no different from what other advanced countries recommend or have done. They begin with verifying reported incidents, take live samples for lab works, map out and secure a quarantine zone, conduct preventive slaughter or culling of both infected and healthy animals to prevent further spread of the virus, bury or burn the carcasses for proper disposal. It does not matter if there is only one dead or sick pig in a herd of 10,000; crisis intervention requires that the whole herd must be killed. Alongside they fumigate surrounding communities as an added preventive measure. This is being done in the Philippines and this is exactly the same thing that they are doing in South Korea this week. Both local and international media have carried so many stories and explained that ASF is not contagious to humans and that quarantine zones and 30 days cleansing period effectively contain and eliminate the virus in the area.

What does not help is when authorities and media focus on the wrong aspects of a crisis. First and foremost let the experts do the talking. If you must open your mouth focus on educating the public instead of feeding their fears about contagious disease. Don’t act like you are an expert and declare counter measures that are exaggerated if not ridiculous. There are established sizes for quarantine areas that public health or veterinary experts know, not politicians. In South Korea, they had a 48-hour freeze on sale just so they have enough time to find out or track where or how far infected products could have reached. Right after that, things went back to normal except for the quarantined area near the border with North Korea.

The order of Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia to ban all pork products from Luzon for 100 days or up to Christmas and New Year as well as reports of “silent” calls to return remaining stocks to suppliers, to put it mildly, is an over reaction that could be labeled as an exaggerated move and will surely come under suspicion as a protectionist strategy not only for “quarantine purposes”, but one that gives Cebu-based producers of pork products a monopoly of Cebu province. It is one thing to walk on the side of caution but such a ban can cause a backlash of sorts. Cebu is not exactly self sufficient in terms of pork and is heavily dependent on local imports. An unscientific and unjustified ban on pork from Luzon could trigger a trade war of sorts where Cebu might end up running low on other essential products. Politics and trade should never be mixed together especially during a crisis.

Bans, quarantines and crisis intervention of this scale is best left to national authorities. Under the present circumstance Malacañang and the DILG should require all LGUs to comply and cooperate with the program or action plans of the DA. The Executive department really needs to work on establishing a “Crisis Management Protocol” for matters of national interest so that the administration can respond based on the policy: One Government – One Voice!

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