China bird flu: Pigeon markets fall empty

38-year-old Zhang Mingbao has been selling pigeon food and cages for more than ten years at the Tianlong Market in Jijiamiao
Image caption Zhang Mingbao, a stall owner at Tianlong market, has lost his livelihood

Beijing's Tianlong bird market fell silent two weeks ago. The gentle sounds of cooing pigeons that usually fill the open-air market have been replaced by nervous chatter among the market's remaining stall owners.

Sales of racing pigeons have been banned by Chinese health authorities, fearful of the spread of the newest strain of bird flu to hit China, H7N9.

Tianlong's birds were transported away from the market's location in south-west Beijing, leaving a handful of stalls offering empty cages and birdseed.

"Those who mainly sell pigeons and birds can't even afford to buy meals," explains Zhang Mingbao, a stall owner, as he fidgets with his mobile phone.

"People like us who sell bird food and medicine can barely cover our rent because of the declining sales."

Zhang's business suffered setbacks during previous health crises, following an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2002, and subsequent rounds of bird flu that have swept China.

However, this time, the government acted unusually quickly to ban bird sales.

"In 2003 and 2004, our market was shut down too during the H1N1 bird flu scare, but the situation wasn't as serious as it is now," Zhang explains.

"Not that many people died then. More people died this year, and people are more aware of self-protection now."

Life and death

Health authorities are rushing to contain the H7N9 bird flu virus after it first surfaced in February.

Thirty-three people in mainland China have already been infected with this year's strain of the bird flu and nine people have died.

So far, all of the infected people are thought to have caught the flu after direct contact with sick birds.

No cases of human to human transmission have been recorded.

Image caption Disease prevention officials have been testing birds on sale at markets

Chinese authorities are attempting to stop the virus by culling hundreds of thousands of birds at poultry markets and farms in the large metropolis of Shanghai and Shanghai's neighbouring Jiangsu province, where most of the cases are centred.

Other live bird populations - including the carrier pigeons that are normally sold at the Tianlong market - are also under strict watch.

Pigeon racing is a popular activity in China, but most races have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Pigeon enthusiasts in Beijing and Shanghai have been told to keep their birds in cages.

Image caption Meng Xianghua has been selling birds at Wanliu Tonghe market for over a decade

Meng Xianghu, a stall owner at another pigeon market, the Wanliu Tonghe market in Beijing, isn't questioning the government's decision to stop bird sales, even though there is no evidence that H7N9 has spread to Beijing.

"We have to listen to the people above us," she says. "This is a matter of life and death."

More transparent

Others aren't so trusting. Many users of Weibo, China's version of Twitter, have questioned the government's efforts to deal with the H7N9 bird flu.

Many point to the attempted cover-up of the Sars outbreak in 2002 as evidence that health officials might be hiding the severity of the current crisis.

"The problem is not that the government releases the information too quickly, but that it always has this internal logic that prefers to delay and conceal information," says Dr. Guo Weiqing, a professor at the School of Government at Guangzhou's Sun Yat Sen University.

"The excuse is that it wants to prevent panic. It is correct to force the government to be more transparent."

Stall owners at the pigeon market say they have no idea how long they'll have to wait before business resumes.

"We can only follow this path as it unfolds," shrugs Mr. Zhang from the empty Tianlong market. "But of course, we are worried."

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