Hush – loose lips on foot and mouth scare biz

Aug 2, 2022
Beef Shorthorn Bull pic
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Legini and Gimah have foot and mouth. They’ve just been vaccinated privately for Rp 100,000 ($10) each. Had an Indonesian government vet wielded the syringe the cost would have been Rp 40,000, but Ibu Bambang fears officials might seize her precious charges and give no compensation.

Her concern is shared by village leaders, for trust in government agencies is low. This is why claims of Bali being free of the highly contagious virus should be treated with scepticism.

If FMD crossed the Arafura Sea the crack of rifles gunning down thousands of bovines would horrify zoophilists and terrify bankers, for exports nationally are worth close to $11 billion. So far the Australian government has ignored Opposition demands to lock the border against the archipelago, unsurprisingly as Indonesia has been Australia’s primary market for feed-lot cattle for more than two decades.

Then there’s the historical reminder of emoting before thinking. In 2011 the then Federal Labor agriculture minister, Joe Ludwig suddenly banned live exports to Indonesia after an ABC Four Corners programme alleged gross mistreatment in abattoirs. Although the ruling was supposed to run for six months, trade resumed after four weeks’ following an outcry by exporters who also launched litigation.

If our airports closed gates to flights from Ngurah Rai the impact on Bali’s tourist trade, slowly dragging itself back from Covid shutdowns would be crippling. BP (Before the Pandemic) a million-plus Ozzies every year spent big at Bali’s bars, eateries and hotels, so travel agents play down the risks.

Scientists don’t: Diponegoro University’s Dr Dian Wahyu Harjanti coordinates a national task force running an awareness campaign through social media. She described FMD as ‘the most important infectious animal disease and the most feared by all countries in the world.’

Australian vets have been in Indonesia advising on vaccination campaigns. However media reports suggest less than one million cows have been needled since FMD was first diagnosed in East Java in May this year. More doses are coming, but storage and delivery are causing logistical probs.

Australia has committed $5 m to ‘fund testing, personnel and logistics support for the distribution of vaccine’.

Since the outbreak more than 6,000 beasts have been slaughtered and 4,000 have died across Indonesia. Figures are highly suspect as farmers like Ibu Bambang and her community don’t want bureaucrats to know their kine are crook. She doesn’t understand how the virus arrived. Her neighbours often come into contact with livestock; there are no footbaths or other hygiene facilities in use.

She’s already lost three goats and relatives have told her of other deaths among the cloven footed. Legini and Gimah might be pulling through. When seen by this unqualified onlooker their mouths were blister-free but the mother and daughter, who’d just delivered a stillborn calf, could not stand, their weeping hooves shedding hard tissue and propped on planks.

Ibu Bambang is a no-nonsense farmer but she wipes away a tear while talking to her pets, who she says weep in pain. Her treatments have been strong doses of flu medicines meant for humans. She says the vet who inoculated her cows confirmed FMD, but didn’t know whether it was genuine and if effective on already sick cows.

The scene is altogether different next door. In WA 444 pastoral stations each carry around 2,600 Brahman and Shorthorns walking seven kilometres a day to find food and water, according to the State government.

The size of the industry is clear to travellers through Northern Australia. Apart from big mobs hanging around dams, where paddocks aren’t fenced the penalty of disobeying the traffic code are bleedingly obvious. Flocks of agile crows and kites – and the slow-flapping wedge tail eagles – feast on the rotting carcasses where road trains have smashed through those that strayed onto the bitumen.

There are about five million cattle in East Java. However visitors will see nary a beast apart from an occasional ox dragging a plough through a wet ricefield or maybe plodding down a rural track ahead of a solid-wheel cart. For tourists from developed Western countries, it’s a lens-uncapping scene out of the Middle Ages.

The Java herd is hidden, tucked into tiny sheds usually alongside houses in hamlets, the critters spending much of their life in cramped quarters alongside their owners. Few eat out; bundles of grass slashed at dawn on fallow land and riverbanks are carted on the backs of herdsmen’s motorbikes and served to the hungry. The nutritional value of the fodder is low, so corn husks are used as supplements.

Ibu Bambang and her husband, who works as a hotel gardener, supplement their income by selling bull calves (no steers) for public slaughter outside mosques at Idul Adha, the Islamic feast of the sacrifice. This recalls Ibrahim’s willingness to follow orders from above and get ready to slit his son Ismail’s throat, a story also found in the Bible.

This year’s event in early July may have helped spread the contagion as young bulls were walked and trucked to the killing fields.

If a little fellow is plump and sturdy a seller might get Rp 15 million ($1,500), a handy sum in a district where the average net monthly wage is Rp 2.3 million ($230).

To date Australian gatekeepers seem aware that Indonesian assurances of control and abatement need to be treated with pitchers of salt. This disease has political symptoms.

(‘Bambang’ is a pseudonym to avoid harassment by government officials.)

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