Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Bird flu and peace in the Middle East?

Could one of the species of wild migratory birds carrying bird flu be a white dove of peace? Dr. Alex Leventhal, the Director of Public Health Services in the Israeli Ministry of Health thinks there's a chance, and I hope he's right:
"We don't know when, but it is predictable," he says. "The migratory birds pass over Israel, Palestine and Jordan twice a year. We are speaking about more than five hundred million birds of which some may be carriers of the virus. This scenario, which we are afraid of, is possible. This is what occurred in Romania, Turkey and Croatia," explained Leventhal.

Dr. Leventhal is challenged by several difficult elements in his daily battle preparing for avian flu. "The problem is that the migratory birds descend for less than one day and fly away again. They may come in contact with poultry and perhaps transmit the virus to them. The disease in poultry is contagious and fatal to the husbandry" warned Leventhal. (ynetnews)
An avian influenza epidemic amongst poultry would be an economic disaster for the region, not Israel alone. And a pandemic would be as serious here as everywhere else and require international cooperation and coordination and mutual aid.
"We are working together with the Palestinians and the Jordanians. We met with the Jordanians on the King Hussein Bridge. Also, there was a meeting with Palestinian officials from the Ministry of Health including the veterinary services in Beit El in Ramallah. The Jordanians suggested a tripartite meeting which we will organize within a week," Leventhal said.

"We decided the Israelis, the Jordanians and the Palestinians should share strategic plans and try to work in conjunction. We have good cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. There are excellent professionals like Dr. Asa'd Ramlawi and Dr. al-Masri.

We told them that we are ready to help them to be able to handle their situation. My teacher taught me an Arabic proverb, ‘A close neighbor is better than a distant brother.’ I hope to see other countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt working with us as well."
The world has only had a "national system" (i.e., been organized into nation states) for about 400 years. The threat of epidemic infectious disease shows that system has severe limitations. How the hard won nationalist aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis will cope with this is uncertain, but overwhelming outside events often force arrangements not conceivable in other ways. Nationalism has been a major vehicle for political advance and the liberation of peoples from colonial yokes. But it is also a tribalism with baneful consequences.

Israelis and Palestinians are both close friends and not-so-distant brothers and sisters. If the threat of an avian flu pandemic weakens these regional nationalisms at this juncture, so much the better as far as I am concerned. An effort by Israeli and Palestinian public health professionals to build bridges is a good step. Take a look at their magazine, bridges.