Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Swine Flu, Crazy Cow and Other Animals

Mike Breen makes a very good point in his recent op-ed in the Korea Times, writing about the swine flu outbreak:
When the health ministry issued statistics last weekend showing swine flu cases were up to 286, Koreans took the news in stride.
Not so long ago, the media atmosphere would have been less cool, possibly even hysterical. The government would almost certainly have banned pork imports, as China, Russia and the Philippines have done.
But this time we are being calmly told that this flu is caught from other infected people, not from pigs, and advised, just in case, to thoroughly cook our pork.
The change is welcome progress and makes sense. Playing up foreign food scares and demonizing imports may have made popular sense in justifying agricultural protectionism. But the authorities have learned that food scares lead to fears about local produce and that it's better for consumer credibility, as well as international perception and trading partner relations, to treat such outbreaks as health, and not trade, issues.

Breen is the author of one of the main books I read about Korea, The Koreans: Who they are, what they want, where their future lies, and has lived here half-time for many years. The title of his piece is "Hope on Mad Cow Disease", and his overall point is that due to Koreans' xenophobia, they have failed to certify the safety of their own beef supply.

Since it is considered so well-known that BSE comes from American cows, there was little effort made to screen and protect Korean herds. Today, Korea still has not made the list of "negligible" or "controlled" risk countries.

A small galbitang (beef rib soup) restaurant opened in my neighborhood last month, and it had a really delicious version of the soup. Alas, I only managed to eat there twice before it closed last week. I asked Mr Hwang what the explanation could be.

He replied there were not enough customers. Thank you, Mr Obvious, I said (on the inside). I suspect the real reason to be they served (indubitably delicious) American beef--stores and restaurants here are required to publicly display the national origin of all the meats they serve. Despite the fact that American beef is verifiably safe and Korean beef is not.

It is this same attitude that infuses and dooms to failure the Korean AIDS policy: foreigners with the disease are deported. This is bad policy for numerous reasons, not least of which is that it is in direct conflict with international AIDS policy. Only a few other countries attempt to screen and deport foreigners, countries like Saudi Arabia and Singapore--most countries reject this method because it doesn't work, and probably makes the problem worse.

Just like with "Crazy Cow", it gives you an easy scapegoat and allows you to whistle past the graveyard when it comes to identifying and dealing with the problem. It gives you a false sense of security.

I think Mr Breen is correct to see "hope" in the rational response to A-H1N1; hopefully, it is a sign of things to come.

Bonus Photograph: On a lighter note, here is a bar sign near Dangsan Station. Drink up, you can't get AIDS from beer, even if it's ...

1 comment:

Jo-Anna said...

I just read this morning in the JoongAng Daily that lots of international festivals and conferences are being canceled in fear of swine flu. I think Korea is foolish if they think they can keep swine flu out forever. They are just hurting their international image if they are canceling events because of a flu that no one is dying of.