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Horse feathers

By Terry Joseph
December 02, 2005

When stereotypical British colonials assessed repartee as less than profound, one among them would likely summon up maximum snootiness to describe the response as "horse feathers," stopping just shy of foul language in burying his opponent's argument.

Taken literally, it meant the scenario proffered by the targeted antagonist was as ludicrous a proposition as a feathered horse but broader definition suggests the words "feathers" and "dung" were interchangeable. Because genteel colonials seldom uttered vulgarities for public consumption, the equine plume antithesis worked, although the party of the first part felt his opponent's point amounted to little more than a heap of manure.

Which is also my valuation of the recent "feathers" debate, which surfaced when a few Carnival enthusiasts attempted to debunk the Health Ministry's thoroughly reasonable anxieties over the possible importation of avian flu, some mas men saying a contentious shipment of feathers was en route to Trinidad before the ban became effective.

How affected mas producers knew precisely when the first Chinese fowl contracted the disease remains a mystery but clearly, the date on the bill of lading was being introduced as hard evidence that the shipment had successfully escaped contamination, not to mention claims of sterilisation, dyeing and other chemical processes which, they insisted, rendered the feathers free of contagion.

Arguments for allowing clearance of the shipment were intrinsically puerile but the larger concern has to be why there was any discussion at all, as the rest of the world busies itself with vaccination or extermination of billions of birds, guarding against even the most remote possibility of the disease mushrooming to pandemic level, such as the 1918 Spanish flu, a strain of the avian version; which killed some 50 million worldwide.

China, already accused of covering up the real extent of bird flu (as was initially the case with SARS), yesterday reported its 30th human case, Health Minister Gao Qiang saying there would be no repeat of the 2003 scenario in which local governments did not openly report accurate figures about the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome until months after outbreaks.

But last weekend, the New Scientist quoted a respected Japanese virologist, Masato Tashiro, who shocked colleagues at a meeting in Germany by exposing a confidential disclosure from Chinese scientists that 300 people have died from bird flu in that country-not two, as Beijing has reported to the world.

World Health Organisation (WHO) officials were meanwhile warning that no one knows when it will happen but were confident it is just a matter of time before no society will be exempt from bird flu and no economy escapes unscathed. On Monday, Reuters reported bird flu fears have already cost the French poultry industry US$120 million.

Last Saturday, Vietnam's Thanhnien News reported the country's Health Minister, Tran Thi Trung Chien had asked the government to allocate US$300 million to buy medicine, chemicals and equipment to fight the disease, which has claimed 42 lives there since late 2003. On the same day, the Boston Globe said in Vietnam's commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, authorities began poisoning pigeons and other wild birds to thwart the possible spread of the virus among its six million residents.

In the Phillipines, the Department of Agriculture in the Davao region is setting aside some US$.5billion for its advocacy and monitoring programmes to combat avian influenza. And now, according to a November 26 Associated Press story, University of Iowa scientists say birds are not the only risk. In a study published in the journal, Clinical Infectious Diseases, research by Dr Gregory Gray shows pigs also pose a threat for passing the virus to humans.

On Wednesday, Australian health and emergency services authorities began a simulated exercise called Operation Eleusis to test the country's readiness to deal with problems which could occur in the event of a real outbreak of bird flu. Similar exercises have been conducted in a number of metropolitan centres worldwide.

It must be evident to bandleaders and feather suppliers that Trinidad and Tobago has neither the money nor other essential resources to successfully combat a major outbreak of bird flu, so any attempt at justifying imports of feathers from affected areas is short-sighted and selfish, putting the rest of us at risk just so Carnival costumes can boast authenticity.

Even as they argue for traditional mas, their insensitivity to the lurking peril and callous disregard of what could befall us is perhaps the best justification yet for costumes made exclusively from beads and bikinis.

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