Winter is the season of respiratory ailments. Its frigid and dry air sent grippy schoolchildren home and flocks of birds to their graves. A highly pathogenic avian influenza unparalleled in history has befallen Korea, but the general public has yet to feel the impact of the calamity. Together with this unconcern, the poor and inept handling of relief operations on the part of the Korean government has prolonged and intensified the struggles of the involved.
The outbreak was detected in a farm near Bonggangcheon, Cheonan-si on last October 28. By December, the H5N6 strain had spread nationwide in high gear. Over 33 million fowls ― about 230 thousand each day ― have been culled. The government assessed the financial damages will exceed a trillion won.
The damage is not limited to the financial front as farmers had to bury their chickens and ducks they had cared for just the day before, not to mention the nationwide demolition of poultry farms. Secondary ― and tertiary ― damages took the form of the so-called “eggflation.” Egg prices skyrocketed. At the start of December 2016, a carton of 30 standard-sized eggs carried a retail price tag of 5,400 won, which eventually soared to 12,500 won early this year. Another measure, selling restriction, backfired as consumers went on panic buying of eggs. The government responded by importing over 1,300 tons of raw and processed eggs. Imported white eggs successfully stabilized egg prices ― for 22 days. After sweeping through Asia, the avian influenza landed in the United States and Spain, forcing the Korean government to impose an embargo on American and Spanish poultry and eggs. Small scale bakeries and restaurants are further reporting losses as the hike in production cost weakened their price competitiveness.
The management of the crisis was nothing but feeble beside its intensity. The government raised the avian influenza alert to “serious” ― our highest warning level ― only after the number of culled poultry recorded the all-time-high. Meanwhile, Japan ― who was also struck with an AI strain ― immediately issued the highest level of crisis alert and beefed up quarantine efforts.
The virus was confirmed in Tottori last November. On the 28th, the last trace of Japanese AI was the culling 55 hundred thousand chickens and five thousand ducks. The Japanese government’s guidelines dictate slaughters to be completed in 24 hours; burials, 72 hours. The Ministry of Environment (in charge of migratory birds), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishery (in charge of poultry), and the local government agencies (in charge of administrative work) each establish a system of AI preparedness before winter comes. Many local governments even provide training to their employees as part of their AI preparedness sytem.
Yet stories were altogether different across the East Sea. Relevant ministries held meeting five days after AI confirmation. A special response team was launched under the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (MAFRA). MAFRA soon became an object of public criticism as on November 23, its spokesman held a drinking bout as the farms’ sufferings were ever growing. Some go as far as to say MAFRA is the control tower without the control ― that it failed to successfully cooperate with other departments. For instance, experiencing shortage of manpower for slaughter, MAFRA requested deployment of military troops, at which the Ministry of National Defense responded with a flat refusal. MAFRA is also being held responsible for the belated AI warning. In Ssulzun, Rhyu Si-min mentioned, “MAFRA is a department set up to encourage production. By nature, it can only be more concerned in price shocks and supply control than a tight quarantine system.”
The current AI strain sweeping over Korea is referred to as the avian version of the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak. The Park Geun-hye government has shown its limits against plagues as in other management of state affairs. At this hour of public dissatisfaction and distrust, we people hope the next occupant of the Blue House proves him or herself on the level.