More Than a Bjasha Maru Dilemma

Kuensel, Thimpu, February 07, 2004

February 7, 2004 - Here comes another problem. The growing concerns over the potentially fatal avian influenza – bird flu - has started affecting tourist bookings into Bhutan. And, as luck will have it, it comes at a time when the local industry is gearing up for the spring peak season.

This follows the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S, the SARS crisis in Asia, and the Maoist problems in Nepal. With Bhutan depending on tourists who come in regional packages, international anxiety and panic has stifled the Bhutanese tourism industry because tourists are avoiding other parts of Asia. Our local industries can only hope and pray as they watch events unfold in the international media.

Such are the trials of a globalised world. A guest house owner in Phobjikha can see his business tumble as events unfold in New York. Today, our chicken farmers and chicken lovers are stressed out by the bird flu outbreak on the other side of the oceans.

Tourism, however, is just one of our concerns. The globalised approach demands that we know and understand all issues that are affecting all aspects of our lives. That way we may not only be able to respond to crises, we might even prevent them. That’s why the growing pressure on governments and media all over the world for more transparency.

In the old days peace meant being left alone in isolation. It worked. But in the changing world scenario peace of mind, it appears, will come only by knowing what’s happening outside. In fact, opening up might be the only way we can preserve our stability.

The alarm over bird flu, like the recent SARS outbreak, comes because the virus causes widespread epidemics in birds and one strain is particularly fatal for humans who are infected. Related concerns include the impact on livestock activities and national economies since chicken farming involves millions of people around the world.

There is no vaccination against the flu although there are known drugs to treat it. And the current fear is that the problem could move from birds to infection from one human to another.

But the most important reason for the panic is the high visibility of the problem in a global society. People are watching and reading, with great apprehension, millions of chickens being culled and the human toll in the media.

We also know that the problem was exacerbated by the silence governments had maintained on the problem in its early stages. As we have seen, broader political and economic concerns have led to governments covering up life-threatening developments including HIV/AIDS. But this strategy usually tends to backfire.

We welcome the response of the Bhutanese health authorities who have announced their concerns over the need to take all preventive measures possible. Like the SARS issue, Bhutan takes these threats seriously, thereby reassuring both citizens and foreigners living in the country. With most of our meat imported the risks come from sources that we do not have any control over so it is necessary to take precautions.

For Bhutan it is important that we understand the problem in the right perspective. “Little knowledge is dangerous,” traditional wisdom warned us. Many of us understand the world from the limited, sometimes distorted, view that television images represent.

One basic irony is that long-existing problems are often forgotten in the excitement of new ones. Not to undermine a problem as serious as the bird flu, our basic priorities have not changed. The uncontrolled growth in road traffic is already causing more deaths than many infectious diseases and it looks like this problem will only deteriorate. We do not know yet the full impact of AIDS in our society but we know that there are some of our citizens suffering in silence and some unsuspecting people being exposed to the risks.

And we cannot forget that, with diarrhea and dysentery being the third biggest causes of death in the country, we can save more lives by teaching people to wash their hands before eating.

The dilemma of the bjasha maru will pass but these issues are with us to stay.

Copyright 2003 - Kuensel

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