Why Did One-Quarter of the World’s Pigs Die in a Year?

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Source: The New York Times

By Yanzhong Huang, a global-health expert specializing in China as this op-ed appeared in the New York Times

On a recent visit to my hometown by the Yangtze River in eastern China, relatives welcomed me, as ever, with a feast: steamed perch and hairy crab, deep-fried river shrimp – and braised pork. My 84-year-old father made sure to serve pork, even though it was now twice as expensive as the year before.

This time, he didn’t get the meat from my brother, who until this fall had been the village’s largest pork producer: All 150 pigs on my brother’s farm had either died or been culled because of African swine fever.

The disease was first reported in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, in early August 2018. By the end of August 2019, the entire pig population of China had dropped by about 40 percent. China accounted for more than half of the global pig population in 2018, and the epidemic there alone has killed nearly one-quarter of all the world’s pigs.

By late September, the disease had cost economic losses of one trillion yuan (about $141 billion), according to Li Defa, dean of the College of Animal Science and Technology at China Agricultural University in Beijing. Qiu Huaji, a leading Chinese expert on porcine infectious diseases, has said that African swine fever has been no less devastating “than a war” – in terms of “its effects on the national interest and people’s livelihoods and its political, economic and social impact.”

“We lost hundreds of thousands of yuan,” my sister-in-law bemoaned, several tens of thousands of dollars. “Haven’t you been compensated by the government for the dead pigs?” I asked. “Only 100 yuan per head,” less than $15, she said, “That didn’t help.”

She wasn’t being entirely forthright. The government said that it would hand out 1,200 yuan (about $170) per animal culled, but her calculation was based on the total number of pigs she and my brother lost to swine fever. For a time, the two of them tried to furtively bury the dead pigs, hoping they might be able to quickly sell off the ones that were still alive, sick or not.

My brother’s and his wife’s losses, as well as their attempts to prevent them, are emblematic of what the epidemic has brought out across China. A crisis that might have been manageable quickly became a small catastrophe because of how the Chinese state operates.

Much like severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, exposed the shortcomings of China’s public health system when it became an epidemic in 2002-3, swine fever today exposes the weaknesses of the country’s animal-disease prevention and control. But it also reveals something much more fundamental: notably, the perverse effects that even sound regulations can have when they are deployed within a system of governance as unsound as China’s.

According to Yu Kangzhen, a deputy minister of agriculture, the localities that struggled to control the spread of African swine fever were also those that lacked staff, funding or other resources in animal-epidemic prevention. Yet that alone cannot explain the breadth of the epidemic or the speed with which it swept across China.

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