Agriculture Government News Analysis

Birds of different feathers

Manny Piñol and Phelim Kine

This week we’ve been given examples of how two men confronted difficult decisions in very different ways. First, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol (photo, left) who had to raise the chicken kill from 200,000 to 600,000 birds to ensure the threat from avian flu is removed from the Philippines. Next, Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, Phelim Kine (other photo), who challenged the Department of Education (DepEd) decision to impose mandatory drug-testing of students in Philippine schools, a move aimed at curbing drug use among the young.

The first then, an effort to halt the spread of a disease which the Organization of Animal Health has described as a “global public health concern”; the second, an ill-conceived argument that would more or less guarantee the proliferation of adolescent drug-use – a trend which the World Health Organisation has called a “serious threat to public health and to the safety and well-being of humanity”.

We’re not shocked by either man’s handling of these issues – in fact, it’s exactly how we’d expect each of them to behave. Piñol, a farmer who’s only too aware of the contagion rate of the avian-flu virus and its potential to decimate the poultry industry, would have gritted his teeth and made the call. Kine, on hearing the news of the DepEd’s plan would have seized it as another opportunity to attack the government over its War on Drugs.

Piñol would have been under tremendous pressure from chicken and duck farmers in Central Luzon where the outbreak occurred, to save as many of the foul as he could. Even though they’ll be compensated by their losses by the government, for commercial poultry growers these birds are their livelihood; without them they have no businesses.

Killing animal stocks is no easy decision, and particularly in this location given their importance to the region’s economy. But to responsibly protect that economy, thorough kills must be made. In outbreaks of avian flu, as with other highly transmittable farm diseases, overkill – not under kill – is needed. It only needs one infected bird to spark another outbreak.

Furthermore, it’s not just identifiable diseased birds that have to be slaughtered. Birds that have been in close contact with those birds must also perish. If they’re left alive to transmit the virus, the cull from the next wave could be even greater; the loss to farms and the local economy even more devastating.

It would have been an emotional time for farmers and their families for sure, but at the coalface where difficult decisions have to be made – in this case, preventative action to ensure the disease is stopped dead in its tracks and the human population’s welfare is protected – there’s no place for emotion.

By contrast, Kine has sought to flush buckets of emotion into a similar tough decision – this one taken by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) which mandates, starting next year, that all college students undergo drug tests. With customary drama, Kine stated this: “Mandatory drug testing of students puts them in the crosshairs of Duterte’s abusive drug war, risking the creation of a school-to-cemetery track for students testing positive for drugs”.

And he added: “The Philippine Government should educate students about the health hazards of illegal drugs – not make them targets for unlawful killings by police and their agents”. Both highly political statements aimed at grabbing media coverage and throwing scorn on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte – Kine’s abiding goal.

According to the HRW website, the CHED’s decision “threatens [the students’] safety and right to education”. And then it goes even more loony-progressive-speak. “The mandatory testing of children for drug use raises human rights concerns. Taking a child’s bodily fluids, whether blood or urine, without their consent, may violate the right to bodily integrity and constitute arbitrary interference with their privacy and dignity”.

Really? It’s to be hoped they’re never stopped by border control at Jakarta airport and subjected to cavity searches for drugs. Their bodily integrity, violated or not, would be the least of their problems. As too are these drug tests – they’re only a problem for drug users, the very people the DepEd is seeking to help.

HRW’s emotional outflow continued: “Depending on the manner in which such testing occurs, it could also constitute degrading treatment, and may deter children from attending school or college for reasons unrelated to any potential drug use, depriving them of their right to an education. In many situations, excluding a student from studies due to a positive drug test may also be a disproportionate limitation on a child’s right to education”. How’s that for a contrived argument?

If there’s a prize somewhere for the most-irrational statements of the year, we’d like to nominate that one. Students aren’t going to fall into a catatonic state because they’ve undergone a drug test or been asked to supply a sample of urine. Mr Kine and his over-sensitive friends at Human Rights Watch might require trauma counselling if they were ever asked to pee in a bottle, but students generally are made of tougher stuff than that; in most cases they don’t need to be bubble-wrapped.

Meanwhile, back to Mr Piñol. Yesterday he called for army reinforcements to tackle the logistical difficulties of killing and disposing of more than half a million chickens, ducks and quail – a monumental undertaking. To give some idea of what that involves, so far the Department of Agriculture’s workforce of 200 has only been able to destroy 20,000 birds since the outbreak was announced one week ago. At that rate, to dispatch 600,000 would mean that this operation wouldn’t be completed until around two weeks before Christmas. So he needs the troops and plenty of them

Whatever he does, however, unless he wants Kine on his case, he better not ask any agricultural students to get involved with the liquidation of fluffy birds. After all, their emotional integrity might be violated causing them untold mental distress that could deter them from attending college, thereby depriving them of their right to an education.

But seriously, both these issues are extremely serious. One affects a prime Central Luzon industry – this region is the heartland of Philippine chicken production. It has a stock of 19.2 million chickens; that’s nearly a third of the country’s entire inventory. Of the Philippines 1.66 million tons of chicken production in 2015, the lion’s share – 1.13 million tons – came from Luzon farms. Threat lurks in the wings.

The other affects the welfare of young people whose future doesn’t need to be handicapped and possibly crippled by drug use. If that was allowed to happen then the government would be acting irresponsibly. The CHED decision was not made to traumatise or infringe the civil liberties of college students – it was done to help any who need help. It’s an attempt to get ahead of the curve of a drug problem that’s swept the country and left too many young people with broken lives.

Of course the DepEd could ignore it – claim there’s no real problem which seems to be what’s happened in the past. Presumably, that would keep Kine happy; at least for a while until he comes up with some other preposterous grievance against this government; some other expression of his rancour to guarantee he keeps his name in the spotlight.

And right there is the difference between these two men – one does his job furthering the government’s socio-economic agenda by building a cohesive and productive agricultural sector away from the glare of publicity; the other, who seemingly can’t do his job without the cameras and the microphones, is on a personal mission to hamper and destroy as much of Duterte’s work on ridding the country of illegal narcotics as he can.

Given his rhetoric on the subject you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s an apologist for this toxic trade. The politics of drugs. What we do know is that in 2010 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) issued its World Drug Report in which the Philippines was shown to have the highest prevalence of amphetamine use in the whole of East and Southeast Asia. By 2015, UNDOC was reporting that the Philippines had the second highest meth-usage in the world after El Salvador.

We also know that as crystal meth (shabu) took a greater hold on the Philippines during that period, compared to today Kine and his HRW colleagues were relatively silent on the issue. As was the government of the day. How many people died of drugs in those years we have no way of knowing, but there’s an estimated 4 million shabu addicts/users in the country right now and the vast majority of those are young.

The current avian-flu contagion will be eradicated; it’ll doubtless recur in the Philippines as it has elsewhere across Asia – but vigilance, immediate reporting of infected stocks and adherence to Agriculture Department guidelines will lessen any future threat.

The country’s drug epidemic most likely never will be completely eliminated, despite Duterte’s commitment to ending it. The best that can happen, realistically, is that it’s reduced to such an extent that its impact on society can be minimised. And if mandatory drug-testing of college students can help to achieve that, the measure should be welcomed.

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