Feel good or feel sick?

GNP, exports and the stock market are booming. What could disturb this idyllic feel good factor, which the BJP is betting on to win the elections? Bird flu could. The deadly H5N1 flu virus is sweeping across Asia , ravaging chicken and duck farms from Japan to Pakistan . It jumps from birds to humans, killing them.

To check the virus, the WHO prescribes the slaughter of all chickens within a three mile radius of known infections. So, millions of chickens have been slaughtered across Asia . But the very act of collecting the birds for slaughter can infect the collectors.

The H5NI virus has hit flocks in Japan , China , Vietnam , Thailand , Cambodia and South Korea . The virus in Pakistan , Laos and Indonesia has not yet been definitively determined, but may be less deadly.

The disease has spread with lightning speed across Asia in a few weeks. Can a virus spread from Japan to Pakistan without touching India ? Very unlikely. Almost certainly India has the virus too, but our moribund officials have not detected it yet.

Areas hit by the virus have typically attempted a cover-up. No farmers or local officials want a mass slaughter of chickens, and so suppress the bad news till it is too late to halt the spread. Indonesia tried to avoid mass slaughter by inoculating flocks at risk, but has now reluctantly accepted that slaughter in infected areas is essential to protect healthy areas.

Governments everywhere have promised compensation for slaughtered birds to farmers. But the very fact that farmers have tried to cover up the truth sug-gests that they fear government compensation will be neither adequate or prompt.

Asian experience holds two lessons for India . First, there could be significant repercussions on the stock markets and the economy (bourses have tumbled all over Asia ). Second, bird flu could wreak electoral havoc.

So far, barely a dozen human deaths from bird flu have been recorded. But this is partly because many affected persons may have no idea that they have the disease. If the virus becomes as worrisome as SARS — which ravaged East Asian economies last year — foreigners will slash visits to India , hitting travel and tourism. This will also affect software and BPO exports.

Software companies suffered when the US issued a travel advisory against visiting India during the Indo-Pak stand-off in 2002. If bird flu spreads, another US travel advisory is likely to follow.

In which case, the stock market will surely suffer. Foreign portfolio inflows largely drove last year’s stock market boom. If bird flu affects foreign sentiment, expect markets to slump.

The political effects could be more serious. Will any chief minister dare send his legions to slaughter chickens after every reported infection? Given the utter lack of confidence Indians have in the government, will poultry farmers believe that they will get compensation without long delays and bribes?

When government inspectors descend on villages to detect bird flu, imagine the scope for extortion to certify a village as disease-free. And if in the process many virus-hit villages are falsely certified as healthy, the disease could spread like wildfire, killing chickens everywhere (with no compensation) and humans too. The price of eggs and chicken will soar.

If this happens, forget the feel good factor. The countryside, with 70 per cent of the population, will be seized with fear, worry and misery. Whether the wrath of voters will fall on state governments or the central government remains unclear. But any change from feel good to feel sick must surely fill the ruling coalition with dread.

The biggest danger is that the H5N1 virus will combine with ordinary flu to form a super-virus that creates a global epi-demic. The Asian flu of 1918 infected 525 million and killed 21 million, more than twice as many as killed in World War I. A repeat performance this year is regarded by scientists as very unlikely, but possible.

Let me not be too alarmist. Possibly Asian bird flu will come and go without causing much harm to India , like SARS. But I have a gut feeling that we will not escape so lightly.

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