Avian flu exposes govt's weaknesses

HARARE - The recurrence of avian flu, a lethal chicken virus which has been reported, for the second time, at one of the farms belonging to the country’s largest poultry producer Irvine’s, should be a major concern to  all of us.

There is widespread panic among ordinary citizens and also anxiety among large-scale poultry breeders and small-scale chicken growers.

This is understandable given the way government has so far been treating this issue.

If it’s a strategy to try and contain panic, it’s not working.

By now, we should have expected the government, through the Agriculture ministry, to have made public its action plan to allay the fears among the small scale growers and consumers who have been flooded with fake news about this deadly virus.

Carefully-managed bulletins that have been released by the Department of Veterinary Services so far have not really inspired confidence as they have served to tie those affected to its findings and pace in dealing with the avian flu problem.

This is really disconcerting because the strategy has created widespread panic among consumers who are getting conflicting information on the virus and its impact on their daily lives.

For example, messages warning people with relatives rearing chickens in the rural areas are being warned not to eat or sell those chickens when it is clear that so far, the problem has been confined to the  areas where there has been this outbreak, and it is in Harare!

But for gullible and stressed ordinary folk, this fake news is being treated as true largely because of the poor awareness and public information management by government.

It is indeed the general expectation that government plays a crucial and leading role in educating critical stakeholders and the public on how it is dealing with the problems created by the avian flu virus.

People need to know whether this disease is harmful to them, how widespread is it, how it is spread, is it possible that they can be exposed to infected meat as a result of buying live chickens from roadside vendors?

They also need to be told whether the chicken they are eating from the fastfood outlets is safe.

So, in the absence of this information, the government is leaving both consumers and business at the mercy of purveyors of false news.

The avian flu outbreak has not been confined to Zimbabwe. It has hit big countries in Europe and here in southern Africa, South Africa has had to cull 80 000 birds at it battled the virus.

Our very own biggest producer, Irvine’s has, from the last June figures, killed 140 000 birds while experiencing the pressure of having to contend with a huge market deficit in terms of day-old-chicks.

It is not the problem of Irvine’s or any poultry producer that there is this stubborn avian flu virus.

However, the attitude from government appears to portray the situation as a problem specific to Irvine’s yet it is one that affects everyone.

Already, there is a serious shortage of eggs and chicken in shops and this is against a background of declining production of eggs.

Figures from the Poultry Association of Zimbabwe show that total egg production in the first quarter of 2017 is estimated to have declined to 3,6 million dozen from 4,7 million dozen in the same period in 2016, largely due to disinvestment by small-scale producers in table egg production.

And now in light of this avian flu problem, things could get worse before they improve.

It is important to note that Irvine’s, as the biggest supplier of day-old-chicks is faced with a humongous problem of trying to import eggs for its hatchery to produce day-old-chicks.

This task is made Herculean when one considers the biting shortages of foreign currency.

The longer the problem of Avian Flu persists, the bigger the market deficit.

And the longer the crisis of foreign currency persists, the more we are deprived of protein from chicken which has overtaken beef as the main source of that protein due to its price competitiveness.

It is only fair to say government needs to step in and treat this problem not as an Irvine’s problem but a national one which needs swift response before the situation spirals out of control.

There is significant damage that has been already caused.

Lest we forget: the memories of government dithering when the country was hit by cholera in 2008 are still very fresh.

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