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A pig’s tale

Swine flu. A mass killer? Or just mini–hypochondria? While the media wring its hands, cynics jeer, writes Sylvester da Cunha.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2009 01:57 IST
Sylvester da Cunha

Swine flu. A mass killer? Or just mini–hypochondria? While the media wring its hands, cynics jeer.

Who would clear the picture? At the Veterinary College, somebody sitting behind a large desk shook his head: “Swine flu? We don’t deal with swine. Only dogs, cats, chickens, tortoises and frogs. Sometimes spiders but no porcupines or scorpions.”

“What about snakes?”

“We did have a Reptile Department but it closed because of recurring staff vacancies. Actually no one can confirm that swine flu actually comes from pigs. How many pigs do you see walking around? The four-legged variety, I mean. Poor pigs are being given a bad name for no fault of theirs.”

“If this flu wasn’t created by pigs, then who’s the guilty party?” I persisted.

He gave this deep thought: “Why not fish? Look at the contaminated waters in which they have to live. They should be properly vaccinated. But it’s impractical to cover the whole marine population, even if they all waited in line. To make matters worse, machi-wallas net them by the thousand leaving them on the docks without anyone bothering to feel their pulse or check for fever.”

“Wouldn’t a fish scare be a bit far fetched, I ventured.

“We must also keep a vigilant eye on birds. Yes, birds. Have you noticed how they’ve been coughing this monsoon? You haven’t? That’s because they do their coughing very early in the morning, before you are awake. I have sent a strong memo to our Health Department. But who has bothered to take a blood test from a crow or even a urine sample?”

“Anyway, even if the Department refuses to consider crows, what about sparrows? A sparrow may seem sweet and feathery to you. But have you looked into their eyes? Sly, that’s what they are. I wouldn’t trust a sparrow further than it can spit.”

With his words ringing in my ears, I sought out the nearest municipal hospital.

The superintendent had not been “in his seat” for the last few days. I was shown round by someone dressed in khaki. He might have been a doctor but his khaki cap suggested perhaps not.

We passed through a door marked ‘Infectious Diseases’. “The occupants of these beds”, said my escort, “have malaria, dengue, typhoid, whooping cough and other contagious pathologies.” (Those weren’t his exact words, but you get the picture.)

“Is this where you accommodate the swine flu patients?” I asked.

“No, we wouldn’t want the infected to get infected. Come through here.” We went into a ward marked ‘Swine Flu’— a large room with lots of beds, all of them vacant.

“Where… where?”

“Exactly. Where’s the swine flu epidemic? Not seen by us. It’s terrible,” he confided. “All these doctors, nurses, morgue attendants standing around with nothing to do. The morale is very low. We are hoping desperately that the city will give us an outbreak of cholera, or at least galloping tuberculosis.”

Sylvester da Cunha is one of India’s pioneering admen and chairs the agency that created one of the country’s best known campaigns — the Amul ads.