Chaos from corona: Let’s get our ducks in a row

It’s a no brainer that we need to emphasise clean and hygienic production of meat and meat products by gradually discouraging the wet market and opening standard slaughterhouses in various regions of the nation

Human infections with the common coronavirus are mostly mild and asymptomatic. To date, seven coronaviruses have been shown to infect humans, where four of the common human coronaviruses cause the common cold, but severe and fatal infections have also been observed. Coronaviruses with zoonotic origin have emerged and caused outbreaks in humans with global public health concern: SARS-CoV (2002) and MERS-CoV (2012). In late 2019, a novel coronavirus related to a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China (COVID-19 virus) was identified, which is closely related to SARS-CoV. The COVID-19 virus epidemic has resulted in a much greater number of cases despite having a lower mortality rate.

Both the new coronavirus spreading from China and the SARS outbreak of 2003 likely started from wet markets where meat is sold alongside a variety of live animals. These markets are an integral part of shopping in parts of Asia, and especially in Nepal, are poorly regulated, and there is a severe lack of awareness among the sellers and buyers. The haphazard meat markets throughout the nation is not only a fertile area for the spread of the disease, but also a potential area for the emergence of new strains, just like this noble coronavirus, with zoonotic potential and the ability to hop among humans.

Open riverbed buffalo slaughtering is still in practice, even in Kathmandu and other major cities, where various studies have shown concern about the public health jeopardy due to diseases with zoonotic potential. It is not that different for poultry and other livestock while being handled by the local butchers. That being said, the livestock and poultry producing farmers are not off the hook either, as they are imperative in producing healthy animals even before we talk about the trade, market and food safety.

The dreadful scenario of these newly emerging or re-emerging infectious zoonotic diseases may exacerbate some of the greatest weaknesses of crowded low-resource healthcare facilities, including their inability to quickly identify and isolate patients who may have early symptoms resembling those of other common diseases. Such infections will spread through hospitals where high-quality infection control is extremely challenging. Hence, regarding our situation, we need to understand that our focus should be more on avoiding such havoc, as far as possible, which boils down to a system where we assess, monitor, organise and regulate the agriculture animal business from farming, transport, market to hygienic meat production.

Unlike most of the developed nations, Nepal with a handful of relatively regulated large-scale animal and meat processing enterprises (focusing mainly on poultry and pork meat), majority of the nationwide consumed livestock (buffalo, pigs, sheep, goat, and backyard local chicken) are produced by small holder farmers spread throughout the nation. Embracing the global trend on safeguarding public health and assuring food safety by equal participation of the veterinary sector, it is vital to exploit the expertise of government veterinary service in food safety parallel to the good husbandry practices in the community.

We need to buckle up in advocating policies for safe and hygienic meat and meat products via Animal Slaughterhouse and Meat Inspection Act, 2055 (1999), and wisely implement the Animal Health and Livestock Services Act, 2055 (1999) to regulate livestock health, animal transport, and quarantine. Our newly restructured decentralised government may be ideal to reorganise the system from the grassroots level.

Additionally, it’s a no brainer that we need to emphasise clean and hygienic production of meat and meat products by gradually discouraging the wet market and opening standard slaughterhouses in various regions of the nation. Right across the border, the Indian Ministry of Food Processing Industries is already in various phases of completing more than 40 abattoirs to provide hygienic meat and meat products, and reduce the risk of emergence of zoonotic diseases.

Here in Nepal also, Heifer Nepal, together with the local government in five different municipalities, is facilitating the establishment of modern abattoirs on the 4P (public, private, producer partnership) model with majority shareholding of livestock farmers along with meat entrepreneurs.This is a win-win case assuring equitable returns to smallholder livestock farmers and providing healthy and hygienic meat. In this way, government veterinary service can tag-team with non-governmental and private agencies to reorganise the system from the grassroots level.

Hence, instead of getting overwhelmed by the challenges, we need to stay level headed and start laying the bricks. Rather than confining veterinary services primarily to animal treatment, they need to be exploited on ensuring food safety and public health, encouraging the general public on consuming healthy and hygienic meat and animal products, and going hand in hand with private and public sectors. This will not only ensure the preventive policy and strengthen food and economic safety, but will also allow the government to afford efficient investments on building infrastructure and resources to control and contain such infections on time if they hit our nation.

Dr Mahato is a veterinary doctor