China’s Latest Avian Flu Scare: Zoonotic Disease, Government, and Social Media

Two startling incidences occurred in Shanghai, China last month. Around 16,000 dead, diseased pigs were dumped into the city’s Huangpu River, and three people became the first human cases of the H7N9 bird influenza strain. Was it a coincidence? The Chinese government says yes, Chinese citizens say no.

As Weibo—China’s sole social media platform—explodes with civilian speculation and outcry, government officials struggle to understand the virus strain that has so far killed two and left five in the hospital. While no vaccine exists for the H7N9 strain, it has yet to pass from person-to-person. The strain’s source and method of jump are under question, but the current guess is poor handling of diseased poultry.

Much could be said about the neglect of hygiene and environmental policy in China, and the country’s plentiful breeding grounds for zoonotic disease. It is, therefore, not surprising that China is again the birthplace of a new human-avian flu strain. The fear of a potential pandemic lingers in light of China’s shaky track record with regulating disease. It seems it is not a matter of if, but when. Although the biomedical mystery of H7N9 remains, it is also intriguing to dissect the situation from the ethical and human rights perspective, considering the dynamic dialogue been the Chinese government and its people.

In China, Twitter and Facebook do not exist, but Weibo does. The booming social network—hosting around 500 million users—is censored by the Chinese government but still powerful enough to slip out the population’s opinions. In the case of H7N9 and the river’s dead pigs, the Weibo community repeatedly expressed concern about whether the two events were connected, and were repeatedly silenced with censorship or limited answers by the Chinese government.

This brings forth the question: is it ethical for a government to be secretive or restrictive of information concerning public health? While the Chinese government insists the diseased pigs did not cause H7N9, and also that those pigs did not contaminate Shanghai’s drinking water, it continues to snuff Weibo users’ disagreements and alternative evidence. This can mean two things—either the government is lying and maybe unsure about the connection, or it feels citizens should not be allowed to question its judgment. In either case, the government’s behavior not only stands ethically wrong, but also puts its country and the world’s health in danger. It demonstrates how lack of transparency about disease and lack of civil freedom to address it are undeniable threats to human well-being. As the rest of the world looks on with uncertainty, it must unselfishly consider how governmental power can compromise the health of a nation.

Despite the unjust nature of this issue, it is interesting to see how civilians are once again utilizing social media, even with censorship, as a tool of empowerment. Weibo is linking voices and experiences across the nation, creating popular epidemiology (in which laypersons gather information and statistics about a disease) and personalizing H7N9’s risk. While the online platform may also have negative effects, such as causing unnecessary panic and precautions, it ultimately provides the chance for the Chinese people to look to each other for answers—and fight for those answers—when the government’s are unclear.





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