Blame for the turmoil in Egypt over swine flu can be laid squarely at the feet of the media and politicians, says Nadia El-Awady.
The emergence of a new influenza virus — A(H1N1) or 'swine flu' — has thrown Egypt into a state of disarray. As rumours and conspiracy theories spread, 70 million people are blindly thrashing their wooden swords to ward off an unseen and ubiquitous enemy.
The WHO began confirming cases of swine flu in Mexico and the United States on 23 April. Less than a week later (28 April), the People's Assembly of Egypt called for the slaughter of the country's roughly 300,000 pigs and on 29 April, by presidential decree, the slaughter began. More than 38,000 pigs had been killed by yesterday (14 May). All this, despite not one confirmed case of A(H1N1) in Egypt.
The drastic measures most probably stem from the wide criticism levelled at the government's belated response to the bird flu epidemic of 2003 — which is thought to have resulted in the disease becoming endemic in the country — and fears of the bird flu virus mutating in Egypt's pigs to form a new and more dangerous virus.
Egypt is one of the few Arab and Islamic countries that has a significant pig population. Most pig farmers in the country belong to the Christian minority and live in slums, in very close proximity to their pigs, which are fed on edible garbage.
This situation has previously raised health concerns and the government has had plans to get rid of, or to at least relocate, the pig population since 2006. But, fearing a public outcry, it had yet to act and some analysts believe that the government is using the current swine flu scare to get public support.
A hungry and irresponsible media
Local media are covering every aspect of the scare with a voracious appetite. Some journalists have remained balanced and professional. But many have not, publishing unsubstantiated stories — for example quoting 'experts' who say that pig meat could end up in the Egyptian food industry to be sold as cheap beef (Muslims are prohibited from eating pork) and even suggesting that the virus could be a biological weapon.
Such misinformed journalism is creating panic. For example, there are media reports that some schools are not allowing pig farmers' children to enter their premises for fear of spreading the A(H1N1) virus (even though Egypt still has no cases of the virus). Other media are reporting calls for medical examinations of President Barack Obama and his team before their June visit.
The situation has again brought to the surface Muslim–Christian tensions in the country — always vehemently denied by Egypt's official government and religious sources. Many Christian pig farmers have accused the government of religious intolerance, while journalists are rushing to emphasise diseases spread by pigs — and conclude that this is why God has prohibited Muslims from eating pork.
One journalist writing for a government-owned magazine went so far as to quote an Egyptian scientist's "research" which found that eating pork can infect people with pigs' bad habits such as engaging in mass orgies or not feeling jealous when one's spouse commits adultery.
When I asked the journalist about her source, she said she found it on the Internet — it had been criticised in the media and she felt it deserved proper credit. The author of the study itself, a head of department at the Institute of Animal Studies in Assiut, told me she got her information from online discussion forums.
The role of the government
Clearly the media is not fully to blame. Government ministers and spokespersons, issuing the media with public statements in an effort to be transparent, are also partly responsible for fuelling public panic.
For example, the Minister of Education has called on schools and universities to conduct final exams in open spaces and for prayers to be held in open areas rather than in mosques to minimise potential infection.
The Minister of Health, Hatem Al-Gabaly, supported by high-level Islamic scholars, similarly asked that pilgrimages to holy sites such as Mekkah and Medina be postponed for fear of infection in the crowds. And all imports of pig products have been reportedly banned by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Government statements are also giving rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories. Last week, for example, Al-Gabaly told the government-owned Al-Ahram Daily newspaper that the WHO could be working "in the interest of some international companies" and that it is "forcing us to spend huge amounts of money without justifiable cause".
Put very simply: Egypt is a mess. And almost every sector of society is a perpetrator.
But how do we get out of it? All parties must act. Government officials must differentiate between transparency and providing uninformed information. Egypt's scientists must communicate effectively with the media and base their opinions on scientific fact. And the media needs to learn how to avoid being dragged by their sources into creating unnecessary panic and spreading misinformation among the general public.
Nadia El-Awady is a freelance Egyptian science journalist. She is a board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists and the past president of the Arab Science Journalists Association. She is also a SciDev.Net trustee.