AFRICAN SWINE FEVER’S ECONOMIC, POLITICAL, AND SOCIAL IMPACT IN ASIA

The spread of African swine fever in Asia threatens the livelihoods of millions, and provides a focus for wider social and political dissatisfaction.

Executive summary

  • African swine fever (ASF) is causing serious economic harm to the pig/pork sector
  • ASF also poses an underlying political and social risk
  • ASF will remain a potent threat for the medium term, at least

Introduction

In early July, China’s influential Beijing-based Caixin media published the results of an investigation that revealed the extent to which official inaction and concealment had helped ASF become an economic and social crisis. Caixin’s findings have implications as to how the ASF pandemic is being managed elsewhere in the region and points towards its destabilising consequences for the millions of people in China and elsewhere in the region who raise pigs and process and consume pork products.

Background

ASF originated among Africa’s wild pig population and its dramatic spread in the past few years offers an insight into the impact of expanding communications network and economic globalisation. The virus was first identified in East Africa in the early 1900s within the wild pig population, and subsequently spread among domesticated animals throughout the sub-Saharan region. The virus was first detected outside Africa in Spain and Portugal in 1957 and 1960, spreading to other European countries, Latin America and the Caribbean, before being eradicated beyond Africa in the mid-1990s.

‘This pattern and speed of transmission indicates it is only a matter weeks before ASF is reported in Thailand.’

A second transcontinental outbreak was recorded initially in Georgia in the Caucasus in 2007, before spreading to neighbouring countries and further into Europe. By mid-2019, eight European countries – Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine – reported ASF infected pigs. Rigorous controls and swift government action regarding compensation and subsidies have largely contained the outbreak although few doubt it will spread further west and affect other European countries important pig and pork sectors.

ASF is officially recorded reaching Asia in August 2018 when an outbreak was reported in China. By April 2019, ASF was present in all China’s mainland provinces, reaching Hong Kong special administrative region in May. The virus crossed into northern Vietnam from China in February 2019 and is now present throughput the country. The disease then spread first to Cambodia in May and then into Laos in June. A2 Global warns this pattern and speed of transmission indicates it is only a matter weeks before ASF is reported in Thailand.

ASF kills 100 per cent of the animals it infects, but has no effect on human health. The only means to control the disease is through culling, secure disposal of the carcasses, exclusion, rigorous procedures to prevent the movement of potential infected pork products, and timely and appropriate compensation to pig farmers. Meeting these criteria is a challenge in developed countries, but virtually impossible in communities where hundreds of thousands of low-income households raise a few pigs as a means of supplementing their meagre incomes and reducing high levels of debt secured against increasingly uncertain cereal harvests.

Analysis

Pork products form a key protein source in the diets of many Asians, notably among ethnic Chinese and the region’s non-Muslim communities. While ASF is harmless to humans, many people have chosen not to eat pork since the outbreak began in the region, switching to chicken, beef, and fish where possible. This has resulted in overall price increases of meat-based protein as supplies are consumed. The recorded economic impact of ASF in Asia remains muted as to date the virus has been confined to countries with either strong centralised or authoritarian governments well aware of the threat posed by popular discontent over fundamental and basic issues, such as incomes, food availability and prices. The publication of the Caixinreport indicates high-level state concerns over the outbreak that appear to overcome such fears, within China at least.

There have been no reports of protests in China, Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia over ASF-related issues. However, as Caixin and other growing anecdotal evidence indicates, those most affected – the small-scale pig rearers operating without the same level of official scrutiny given to commercial pork producers – are simply concealing cases of ASF and seeking to market diseased pork rather than risk a serious loss by trusting in government compensation pledges. Such actions, along the failure to dispose of diseased carcasses or abide by quarantine regulations, means it is effectively impossible to prevent the spread of the virus if, or until, a vaccine is developed for ASF.

‘Efforts of governments to conceal or minimise the crisis risk adding to already high level of popular mistrust towards the authorities.’

The disease is testing the ability of Asian governments that rely on a combination of legacy achievementcurrent coercion and outright suppression to manage the expectations and conduct of their citizens. ASF’s impact on both producers and consumers, often divided by mutually exclusive interests in terms of profit and price, creates a broad expectation on the state to provide solutions to an economic, social and ultimately political challenge. Finally, the efforts of governments to conceal or minimise the crisis risk adding to already high level of popular mistrust towards the authorities, reflecting past instances where official inaction or denials have led to often profound failures to protect the population from dangerous and unhealthy food products.

One-week outlook:

Reports of more ASF cases can be expected across the affected countries, with further evidence the virus is steadily moving west and south through Indochina and towards Thailand. While it is not possible to forecast when or where ASF will cross in Thailand, a major pork producer and consumer, it is most likely to be along the border with Laos. Unlike the other Asian countries affected by ASF, Thailand’s relatively open media can be expected to cover the advent of the virus in detail and with accuracy. This should further help analyse the impact of ASF in the more opaque countries, in terms of social as well as economic consequences.

One-month outlook:

A2 Global sees little change over the short term, beyond how governments respond to the need to compensate or otherwise protect the livelihoods of the mainly low-income rural communities that are set to bear the economic burden of ASF and seek redress if denied support. ASF has the potential to act as a focus for wider dissatisfaction with often remote or dismissive rulers. It may prove a serious and sustained ‘disrupter’, notably in Southeast Asia, but also in China where the fear of consequences is increasingly overridden by the certainty official neglect or suppression may not always be the most serious outcome for individuals and the wider community.