In Egypt, virus outbreak leaves many jobless

CAIRO — Jobless and broke, Hamada Ismail called off his wedding and broke up with his fiancee — all because of bird flu.

Its outbreak last month in Egypt has forced the closing of hundreds of poultry stores, including the one Ismail had worked at for years, slaughtering chickens. It also has put hundreds of poultry farms and restaurants out of business in a country where unemployment already is sky-high.

“Of course I can’t afford it,” Ismail, in stained clothes and half-torn black sandals, said recently of his now-cancelled wedding. “I cannot even feed myself,” said the visibly angry young man.

Egypt discovered its first bird flu case last month, so far reporting a total of four cases of the virus in humans.

It has since joined Turkey and Iraq as the only Middle Eastern nations where a human has died of the virus — in Egypt’s case, a woman who had reportedly been raising chickens in her home.

The outbreak in Egypt, a nation of some 73 million people, has decimated the vital and profitable poultry industry, with hundreds of poultry farms going out of business and slaughter houses and restaurants shuttering down for lack of business. The crisis has put tens of thousands of people out of work, further tightening a job market strained by an unemployment rate thought to hover at around 20 per cent.

The government has pledged financial compensations for those whose livelihoods have been affected by the bird flu outbreak, but many complain that they are yet to learn of how to claim the money.

The crisis also has sparked a spate of street protests by hundreds of people employed in the industry and angered by government plans to continue culling birds en masse and allowing more frozen poultry imports.

The problem is perhaps best manifested in the chicken market of the Migharbeleen district in the eastern part of Cairo, one of the city’s best known and poorest commercial areas.

Most poultry shops there have been closed by authorities or banned from selling live birds. The few that remain open sell frozen chicken, but are doing little business because Egyptians are, by and large, averse to frozen foods. Stray cats, of which tens of thousands freely roam Cairo, continue to frequent the live poultry stores still open, hoping to still feast on the innards of freshly slaughtered chicken.

Hani Abdulati, owner of Migharbeleen’s Doha Birds store, never thought the day would come when he sold frozen, rather than live, chicken.

But now, he thinks it’s better than going out of business.

“I know that Egyptians prefer buying fresh, not frozen, meat, but I don’t want to end up stealing to make ends meet,” said Abdulati, 32. “I am just trying to feed my children.” Abdulati, whose family has been in the live poultry business for decades, says he is selling an average of eight frozen chickens a day, compared to at least 100 live birds a day, before the bird flu outbreak.

“We have a serious problem here,” he said. “I am afraid I will be forced to close the shop if the situation stays as it is. Even the cats are affected by this crisis, not just humans,” said Abdulati, pointing to several cats sleeping inside empty bird cages at his store.

Umm Mohammed, a 38-year-old housewife, walked into the store later, looked inside the fridge where frozen chicken are stored and then shook her head in disapproval.

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