Swine and prejudice: The unfortunately named flu strain is provoking disproportionate, and disproportionately bigoted, responses. Satire is the only effective antidote. (karomanah / via flickr)
Swine flu affects pigs. But evidence is slim that the recent outbreak of swine flu around the world -- which appears to be less worthy of a Movie of the Week than originally advertised -- was transmitted from pigs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it appears to be a people-to-people strain. Egypt isn't taking chances. Or, rather, it's not missing an opportunity: It's ordered the slaughter of all its 300,000 or so pigs.
Why? Because most pig farmers are Coptic Christians, a minority of about 7.5 million people out of Egypt's 83 million. They're often the favored whipping boys (and girls and men and women) of a culture that loves scapegoats. Copts are paying the price of Egypt's prejudices. They alone raise pigs. Annihilating their stock is a state crime of opportunity: blame the slaughter on the swine flu while profiting from it to set the Copts back economically.
Never mind that Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, can't afford to jeopardize even a fraction of its food supply. Copts know this well: millions of them now live in the slums of Cairo because they migrated there from their original grounds in Upper Egypt to escape famine. But most Muslims don't eat pork. Christians do. Slaughter their pigs, and you're only jeopardizing their own food sources. For the Egyptian government, it's a win-win. That's swine strategy for you. Any wonder why Copts rioted?
The country's Muslim Brotherhood jumped on the occasion to peddle its own swine fallacies: "Eventually time proves the truth of God's words to us," Sheikh al-Sayed Askar said at a Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored symposium on the virus Wednesday.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Libya ban pigs altogether, a a derivative of the Koran's (medically inaccurate) claim that pigs are unclean. So they're not unsheathing their swords so much as their thermal cameras.
Meanwhile, Israel's deputy health minister, Yakov Litzman, said the reference to pigs is offensive to Jews and Muslims. But his solution was even more offensive: "We should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu."
In its current identity, the swine flu obviously refers to no nationality or culture. Nor is it a given that because its earliest known case, at least in human form, was detected in Mexico, it is a Mexican disease in origin. Litzman would nail it to the Mexicans.
The World Health Organization dropped the name "swine flu" too, out of sensitivity to Middle Eastern cultures, but its solution, while less of a Litzmanian response, is not likely to go viral. the organization wants us all to refer to the swine flu as influenza A(H1N1), which would be almost as bad as catching the disease. Good luck.
- Swine Flu in the Middle East: Country by Country
- Why Are Egypt's Copts?
- World Health Organization FAQ