These days Britain is looking very Third World...regressing into a land of pestilence and disaster. The Brits are getting a taste of what it feels like to be ostracised by supercilious foreigners as a country of disease and calamities. We Indians have been on the receiving end for decades, so if we experience malicious pleasure at current British predicament, surely we can be forgiven. Revenge is sweet, especially when we have nothing to do with it.
For Britain, the raging foot-and-mouth disease has opened a can of worms. The disease that is afflicting hoofed animals has resulted in the mass slaughter and burning of hundreds of thousands of livestock. Across the world, Britain has lost face as media shifts from images of a charming Prince William and an earnest Tony Blair to ghastly smoking pyres of infected cattle. Nearly a thousand farms have been diagnosed with the acute viral infection that causes blisters, fever and lameness in sheep, cows, goats and pigs. Already, nearly 6,00,000 animals have been slaughtered and an estimated 3,50,000 are still awaiting death.
The disease was eradicated in the US in 1929 and yet Americans periodically continue to test their ability to respond to this epidemic. Britain had a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1967 and even then had been caught totally unprepared. As the epidemic rages, the government appears to have been stricken with a variation of foot-in-mouth disease. At first, ministers denied there was a crisis. When it became impossible to deny the epidemic, the government reacted with slow caution. By the time the government decided it was safest to kill the animals, the infectious disease had spread across the countryside afflicting hundreds of thousands of animals. When the crisis snowballed, the government called in the army for the mass slaughter.
After the animals were killed, the government realised carcass-disposal posed an environmental hazard. Slaughtered cows could not be buried as they could contaminate the groundwater. So, the authorities decided to burn the animals. International media faithfully relayed these images and people around the world watched in disgust as the lovely English countryside became a vast cremation ghat of mournful funeral pyres. Now experts warn that the smoke may pollute the environment and even accelerate the spread of this airborne disease. Some 1,50,000 rotting slaughtered animals are still awaiting disposal. So, now the British government decides it's okay to bury the cows.
And you wonder why they laugh at bumbling Third World governments!
Britain's trouble is that this foot-and-mouth disease is coming at the end of a series of disasters and diseases. The country has barely got over the mad cow disease that eventually hastened the downfall of John Major. Terrorist bombings and fatal train crashes have created public scares. Britain suffered the wettest weather in centuries and the worst floods in 400 years. Speed restrictions have reduced public transport to a crawl. A wildcat agitation against gasoline tax grounded motorists. Last week the underground metro staff went on strike, protesting privatisation. The British education and health systems are crumbling—it can take six months to a year to get an appointment with a specialist. Infrastructure is poor, traffic congestion awful and British plumbing even worse.
No wonder the international media has been coming down hard on Britain, probably because the country does arouse strong, ambivalent reactions in most people. The Chicago Sun Times described Britain as a country struck "by a series of Biblical plagues". The Italian news magazine L'Espresso wrote Britain was cursed with "epidemics, train crashes, poverty and bomb attacks". The Japan Times said "things have been going nowhere but downhill". The French never miss an opportunity to take digs at the British. The Le Monde said Britain "was falling apart". The former imperial power is now the "sick man of Europe"; the once "Sceptred Isle" is now the "Septic Isle".
The animal contagion also has crippling economic dimensions. It has already cost the nation £9 billion. Britain is now alarmed by tourist cancellations. The tourism industry is worth £12 billion and provides 3,80,000 jobs. Tourists are scared away by the virtual shutdown of British countryside.
Tourists' fear is aggravated by ignorance. They are afraid of catching the infection. The foot-and-mouth disease does not infect human beings, but many tourists don't want to take a chance. People are afraid they will get sores on their mouth and that their hands and feet will fall off. The British are, in fact, engaged in a special campaign in the US to tell Americans not to confuse this epidemic with the foot-and-mouth disease that afflicts humans in the latter country. The disease known to Americans is a viral infection that can lead to meningitis, encephalitis and paralysis, especially in children. Tony Blair even went on air to assuage fears. British food is safe, they don't have to bring their own food. But when a holiday entails spending one's savings, and when there are so many exotic safe destinations beckoning, British pleas that this is an economic and not a health crisis is falling on deaf ears.
And that's bad news. American tourists alone account for £2.5 billion a year to Britain. Adding to the UK's cup of woes is the EU ban on export of British meat and milk products. Above all, British pride is taking a beating. When you travel out of London to other European destinations, all passengers have to walk on a disinfecting footbath. Baggage is checked for British foodstuff. As we sail past customs officials, we can't help noticing the discomfiture of Britons, checked rigorously by the local authorities. Burning with indignation and humiliation, the British nose comes down a few inches and the fabled stiff upper lip quivers.
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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