Sunday, July 31, 2005

Bird flu mixed messages and nixed messages

Here's a case study on how not to do it. According to the Indonesian government people shouldn't panic about bird flu. That goes for everyone. No exceptions. None. Except maybe government ministers (The Jakarta Post):
Wearing a special white outfit complete with gloves and mask, Minister of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono was shouting stressfully to staff from the Tangerang animal husbandry office asking them if it was safe to open his mask to give an interview to the media.

Many reporters, waiting in front of the minister with no protective gloves or masks during a cull ceremony on a pig farm in Legok, Tangerang, Banten province last Sunday, were astonished to see how frightened he was.

For several minutes, no one seemed to listen to the minister's query as the ministry and regency staffers, reporters and hundreds of local people wore no protective gear -- the exceptions were Anton, the Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Alwi Shihab and two or three ministerial aides.

"Don't blame me if you get bird flu because you don't wear a mask. This is very dangerous, you know, as the virus can be transmitted through the air," he warned reporters through his mask.
No, don't blame him. There they are, all standing around at a typical photo-op, the "culling" (that is killing) of 31 pigs and 40 ducks said to be infected. The object was to show everyone that the government had the situation under control. But despite the warning, the minister's staff had only a few masks for high-ranking officials. No protection for reporters or local citizens or curious members of the public attending what the Jakarta Post said many suspected was just "a public relations stunt," given the half-assed efforts at protection.

One of the skeptics was the Regent of Tangerang, Ismet Iskandar. He didn't even bother to attend, and those of his staff present seemed unconcerned, as did the hundreds of unprotected local residents who watched the slaughter of the infected animals at close quarters.

But the Regent did become quite concerned shortly afterward when the government declared his district a Red Zone for bird flu.
The regent later denied that there were any bird flu cases in Tangerang and asked the central government to revoke the red zone status. He insisted that the central government had no reason at all to declare his regency prone to the virus because the local animal husbandry office had not found any evidence of avian influenza there.
He also complained that the red zone status was having a negative impact on poultry breeders and market vendors, with their sales slashed by around 50 percent virtually over night.

The regent is putting his chicken where his mouth is, along with several of his colleagues. It was announced Saturday that several ministers, including the head of the animal husbandry and agriculture service of Tangerang, Didi Aswadi (whose staff didn't hand out masks at the culling event), will be having a public chicken-eating affair today (Sunday, 7/31/05):
Aswadi said the event was to be held to help chicken farmers in the region who had suffered great losses after chicken sales dropped following the spread of the disease.

Among the ministers scheduled to attend the event are Coordinating Minister for People`s Welfare Alwi Shihab, State Minister for Information and Communication Sofyan Djalil, Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari, Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyanto and Trade Minister Maria Elka Pangestu.
Also to attend the occasion are Banten Governor Djoko Munandar and Deputy Governor Mrs Ratu Atut Chosiyah and Tangerang District Head Ismet Iskandar. (Antara News Service)
On the one hand, citizens are panicked about chicken and don't believe the government that everything is under control. On the other hand, local interests don't believe the government because they send mixed messages and don't seem to know what they're doing. The real problem, of course, is that the government isn't believable, so people keep on believing what makes sense to them. In such a setting it might be difficult to get cooperation of local jurisdictions in taking measures the government says are necessary (and may very well be).

Meanwhile in the US, our own government health agencies try to keep their credibility by saying nothing. That's not a mixed message. That's a nixed message.